How The Child Nutrition Act Will Raise School Lunch Prices

Something you may not know about the child nutrition bill President Obama signed into law this week: It will raise the price of school lunches for most students.

For years, the federal government has given school districts subsidies so they could offer free and reduced-price lunches to poor students. But there’s never been any rule that says all the money has to actually go to poor students. Often, the school district will use part of the funds to lower the price of lunch for the rest of the school — the ones who don’t strictly qualify for free lunches.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act closes that loophole.Over the next 10 years, the change is expected to bring in an extra $2.6 million to the school lunch program. School districts are expected to raise the price of lunch by two-percent increments, plus inflation, until their students are paying the actual, full cost of the lunch.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a study in January that recommended closing the loophole, saying the money saved could be used to improve the quality of school lunches. And many school lunch reformists, including Margo Wootan, the director for nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have applauded the provision.

There is, however, concern that raising the price of lunch by just a few cents could make it too expensive for some families — especially those making just a little bit too much to be eligible.

“The downside of raising meal prices during these tough economic times is that you run the risk of making the meals unaffordable for kids whose families just barely miss the financial eligibility cut-off,” Kate Adamick, a school-food consultant, told Grist.

Students are eligible for free lunch if their families make 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level, about $22,000 for a family of four. The poverty guidelines are universal throughout the continental U.S., with no accounting for the different costs of living in different areas of the country.

The School Nutrition Association also warns that raising the price may result in fewer students getting lunch at school, calling it a potentially “risky gamble.” The SNA, however, supports the legislation overall, even sending its president to the bill signing yesterday.