It’s one thing when regulations impact businesses, or motorists, or land owners, it’s a whole other ballgame when they impact kids. There has been a lot of media attention on the Federal Department of Agriculture’s attempts to get kids on student lunch programs to eat healthier foods. Unfortunately, the Department’s definition of what is healthy is probably akin to what a Spartan’s mother might have fed her child before he started his military training at the age of seven.
While there is an obvious problem with obesity in the country – take it from a fat guy who knows – it is not necessary for all of the nation’s children to grow up to be one of the 300. The fact that the Federal government has gone so far as to promulgate regulations on bake sales in school – banning them, if a school district is so brash as to want any Federal funds, is beyond silly.
Ending Student Bake Sales for an 80-cent Federal Check
The National School Lunch Program is funded by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and provides nutritionally balanced low-cost (or free) lunches and snacks to more than 31 million children in about 100,000 public and non‐profit private schools. The program does this by reimbursing schools based on the number of meals served and the income levels of those who participate. As of 2014, the reimbursement rates are shown in the table below. About 70 percent of the meals served under this program are either free or sold at a reduced price, and about 5.1 billion meals were served under the program in 2013. The Federal government spent just over $11 billion on the program that year for an average reimbursement of about $2.15 per meal. Since schools must contribute 30 percent of the meal cost, this suggests that the average school lunch costs the government about $3.10.
USDA Reimbursement Rates
Per Student Per Day
As part of its attempt to reduce obesity, the USDA issues strict guidelines known as the “Smart Snacks” Interim Final Rule. Currently, the USDA funds afterschool snacks through the Afterschool Snack Program, which operates through agreements with about 26,000 local schools and institutions. School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the snack program receive cash subsidies from the USDA for each snack they serve (see table above). In return, they must serve snacks that meet Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price snacks to eligible children.
Under the Smart Snack rule, schools that receive the whopping 80-cents (or less) per student from the Federal government are subject to a 54-page rule that requires, among other things, that food sold in vending machines and at school fund-raisers, like bake sales, are subject to strict standards on the level of fat and sugar allowed. In effect, the rules preclude the sale of the types of baked goods, like cookies and cupcakes that are sold at bake sales. While State governments can exempt certain fundraisers, they cannot be permitted to occur on campus during normal meal-times. For a school that participates in the program and has for example 100 kids receiving some sort of reimbursement, the cost of ignoring the rule would be about $354 per child, or $35,400. This is equal to $214 per school day. The school itself would be spending about $15,675 for the program. This creates a benefit-cost question for schools across the country. Is it worth giving up $214 per day to avoid the administrative hassle of the USDA rules, and to allow such things as bake sales? Considering that the average food-service supervisor working for local government makes about $32,650 per year, were it to take a full-time person to administer the Federal program, the cost could well be a wash. Is it any wonder that participation in the program has been falling since 2009 – even though the number of free and reduced cost meals served has been on the rise?
As with many one size fits all federal regulations, these guidelines seem to impact the poorest schools in the country. To receive a paltry 80-cents per student to provide them with an apple or some kale, these schools are forced to give up activities like bake sales that help develop both students and communities. Wealthier schools that do not receive much federal school lunch support can simply opt out of the program and sell cupcakes to their hearts content.
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