Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

The Food Costs of Healthier School Lunches

Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

The Food Costs of Healthier School Lunches

Article excerpt

The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed and adopted a new set of meal pattern requirements for the National School Lunch Program that will allow schools to claim 6 cents more in lunch reimbursement rates. This study analyzes the food costs of school menus in 2005 that met many of the proposed requirements. Overall, schools that served more, and more diverse, non-starchy vegetables had higher average food costs, and schools that served menus with lower calories had lower food costs. The food costs of school lunch menus that met the combined standards for dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, other vegetables, lowfat/fat-free milk, and fruit averaged 9 cents more per meal in 2005 dollars when other major factors that could affect food choices are taken into account. The main sources of higher costs appear to be related to the provisions for more vegetables.

Key Words: National School Lunch Program (NSLP), food assistance, nutrition, school food service, NSLP costs

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the nation's second largest food assistance program, serving low-cost or free lunches to over 31.6 million children on a daily basis. In December 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger- Free Kids Act (PL 111-296), which expands access to school meal programs, gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture new regulatory powers to influence the quality of foods offered at schools, and makes important changes to the way the program is administered. One of the many changes included is an increase of 6 cents in the lunch reimbursement rate for schools that comply with new meal pattern requirements. USDA released proposed meal pattern requirements in early 2011, and if the proposed requirements become law, schools should receive the higher reimbursement rates by school year 2012-2013.1

This research looks at the relationship between the cost and healthfulness of NSLP lunches by comparing the food costs of schools whose menus met many of the proposed standards in school year 2004-2005 to costs at those schools whose menus did not. The analysis also tests whether meeting most of the standards significantly affects measured food costs in a multivariate framework that takes into account other factors that may influence school lunch food costs. The analysis allows us to infer which of the proposed standards contributes most to costs-whether it is the standards that apply to vegetables or the standards that apply to fruit, for example.

The approach used here differs slightly from previous analyses in that it measures differences in food costs of healthier menus versus less healthy menus that existed across schools. Two previous studies assigned costs to hypothetical menus designed to meet all of the new standards. The advantage to the approach used here is that actual menus are compared, but the disadvantage is that because no school met all of the new standards in 2005, the full food cost of all the new standards together is not estimated. Instead, the analysis estimates cost differences for various components and subsets of the standards.

The findings here are consistent with those of two other studies looking into this question; both of the studies found that healthier meals are more costly. In this analysis, schools that met many of the new requirements had higher per-menu food costs in 2005-2006 than schools that did not meet those requirements. But schools meeting two of the new standards that call for lower quantities of certain foods were found to reduce menu costs. Overall, this analysis provides evidence that an increase in the reimbursement rate is probably warranted, but a specific rate increase is not implied.

Background and Previous Research

Recent studies have shed light on the school meal programs' effects on children's health and obesity outcomes (Campbell et al. 2011, Millimet, Tchernis, and Husain 2009, Schanzenbach 2009, Gleason and Dodd 2009, Gordon et al. …

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