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Increasing Investment in School Meals Pays for Itself, and Then Some

School Meals Are Undervalued

The facts are clear: School meal programs have a positive impact on kids. Scientific studies repeatedly show the benefits of school meals: When children have their basic needs met, they are healthier and they learn better. For more than 30 million children in the United States, school meals often provide the healthiest food they have access to each day and a foundation for their well-being and long-term success.

Now a new evaluation of the programs using True Cost Accounting methodologies, published in collaboration with the Center for Good Food Purchasing, shows that our national investment of $18.7 billion in school meal programs each year generates nearly $40 billion in human health and economic benefits annually. In other words, for every dollar our country spends on school food we receive more than two dollars back – a guaranteed return on investment that could make any investor envious.

New Areas for Investments Identified

Despite their clear benefits, we’ve often seen school meal programs targeted for budget cuts, efforts to reach more kids with free meals questioned, and nutrition standards placed on the chopping block. Instead, we should be doubling down on the success of these programs. We deeply undervalue our school meal programs—and many other social programs—when we look only at their price tag. True Cost Accounting helps us understand a program’s full benefits to society and opportunities to generate higher returns.

Our analysis identified three primary areas for additional investment in school meal programs that could create even greater net benefits to children, families, and communities:

  • Using public purchasing dollars to support a better food system: By optimizing the ways schools purchase food, including intentional sourcing from local and regional food suppliers, school meals could produce another $1.3 billion in annual net value compared with the status quo. Food purchasing dollars can support local economies, producer and worker livelihoods, and environmental health, and generate more equitable returns to farmers of color, food workers, and suppliers who have been excluded. Many school nutrition directors and their allies have been working to achieve this vision, and with more supportive regulations and policy incentives can go even further.
  • Maximizing student participation: The current school meals programs serve nearly 45 million meals per day. Despite these numbers, the programs are underutilized, often due to stigma associated with school meals or the bureaucratic challenges of enrolling in the program. If every student who was eligible under standard federal rules participated, meals served would increase by 40% and generate an additional $7.5 billion of net value. These numbers can increase even more if we extend free meal access to all children. This could also help reduce stigma, save school districts mountains of paperwork, and open up new opportunities for innovation in school foodservice.
  • Improving dietary composition: Food served in school meal programs is regulated by federal guidelines making it healthier than the average American diet. According to one recent study, the current nutrition standards adopted in 2010 have already prevented 500,000 cases of child obesity among students from low-income families. Shifting nutritional quality even further, away from foods like processed meat and those high in added sugar, and toward meal patterns higher in whole grains, legumes and vegetables, would further help to prevent diet-related diseases and also have environmental and climate benefits. This change could yield more than $1.5 billion in additional net value each year.

Taken together, these three actions could result in at least $10 billion in additional value for students, parents, and communities around the country.

The Tools Exist to Make These Transitions

Progress is already being made in each of these areas, and more can be done to support these efforts, including:

  • Increase meal reimbursement rates. Currently the federal government reimburses school districts between $1.97 – $3.66 per meal. This rate must cover food costs and labor and operational costs, and often forces school food administrators to find the lowest-priced food—which is rarely the best value food for children and society. An increase of just 10-25 cents per meal would make it easier for school districts to source higher quality and more sustainably and equitably sourced ingredients. Several states have demonstrated this by offering additional per meal reimbursements to schools that source locally, such as Michigan where schools get an extra ten cents per meal for fruits, vegetables, and legumes sourced in-state, redirecting millions of dollars of purchasing to Michigan’s farmers and businesses.
  • Support Healthy School Meals for All. Thanks to a range of policy and school-based innovations, such as the adoption of Healthy School Meals for All policies in California and Maine, and USDA waivers that made school meals more available during the pandemic, we have demonstrated the ability to provide school meals for every child regardless of family income. These efforts are growing in momentum in cities and states across the country, and are increasingly being explored by our federal policymakers.
  • In-School Meal Innovations. Schools have long led the way in efforts proven to increase kids’ consumption of healthier food, such as scratch cooking, food and nutrition education, school gardens, and healthy purchasing. Farm to School grants and other investments have helped support these efforts, and much more is needed. Investments in kitchen infrastructure and culinary training in particular can help schools do more scratch cooking that enables more delicious, healthy, and culturally appropriate food service, while also upskilling food service workers.

Investing in School Meals Pays Off

Since the 1940s school meal programs have provided meals to tens of millions of American children, especially those who have been most underserved by our nation’s food and economic systems. These programs help alleviate poverty and promote healthier learning environments. With this new report, we help show that the dollar investment pays off, and we have a clear path forward on how to strengthen them and expand their impact. With the right actions to prioritize sustainable and equitable food purchasing, open the plan to more children, and improve nutrition, school meal programs can be a driver of a better food system for all.

Explore the Methodology

We invite organizations across the food system to join in exploring the power of school meals as reflected in this True Cost case study, as well as other applications of the True Cost Accounting methodology. The tables and calculations used in our reports are free to download here.

Working together, we believe that we can forge a path to a better food future – one where all children regardless of background have access to healthy food and where communities will be healthier and more prosperous.

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