Tuesday, April 05, 2005

School lunch economics

The Washington Post today has a fairly good account of the pressures school lunch programs face, which lead them to rely on selling junk food to students.

In the face of opposition from students who enjoy junk food and school systems hooked on the revenue it brings in, health advocates are supporting legislation in the Maryland General Assembly that would tighten nutrition standards on school food. Twenty-six other states are considering similar measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The proposed fat and sugar caps concern some food service managers and administrators who say they pose a risk to their schools' financial health.

Even some who support tougher standards say such measures don't address the central problem in public school cafeterias: that schools have a financial incentive to serve unhealthful food.

"It's a bizarre system that needs to be fixed," said Erik Peterson, spokesman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents food managers and workers.

The article explains well that school food services are reimbursed for most, but not all, of their per-meal cost for meals served free to low-income children through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The food service company loses even more per-meal on meals served for a price to nonpoor children through the NSLP. The food services often end up with a profit overall through lucrative sales of pizza and junk food, which are called "competitive foods" in the child nutrition lingo. If unhealthy competitive foods were banned, as many people who care about children's nutrition recommend, it seems reasonable that the reimbursement rate for NSLP meals should be increased somewhat to compensate.

I have two quibbles with the article. First, just after explaining the preceding points, the article quotes an enormous dollar figure, which I almost don't want to repeat, because I don't want it to stick in your head. Okay, $6 billion. This quoted dollar figure is the cost of "universal school lunch" -- which is a term that usually means the provision of free meals to all students regardless of income. That is a different issue. I think the cost of increasing reimbursements to compensate for the loss of unhealthy comepetitive foods would be much lower.

Second, losing unhealthy competitive foods is not the same as losing all competitive foods. Many people are working so hard to increase the attractiveness of healthy school food offerings, so it's sad to see their work overlooked. Salad bars. Fresh fruit. It may be hard for administrators to believe that their students would buy fresh fruit, if today they eat only potato chips and never touch fruit. But, without potato chips, increased sales of fresh fruit are an economic certainty.

Given the seriousness of the nutrition challenge facing young people in this country, the article should have described a ban on high-fat high-sugar high-salt competitive foods as a serious policy option even in a tight fiscal environment.

1 comment:

Squirrel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.