School & District Management

Why It’s Getting More Expensive to Feed Kids at School

By Arianna Prothero — January 09, 2024 3 min read
School cook Renee Stanford, left, restocks food items in a heated display during lunch break at Tonalea K-8 school in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Dec. 12, 2022. Funding, labor and supply shortages have limited the school district's ability to cook and serve fresh food, making it more reliant on prepackaged, ready-to-eat items.
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School cafeterias are facing tough times as rising food prices and staffing shortages continue to be big problems, according to the School Nutrition Association’s annual survey of school nutrition directors.

“It’s not only the cost of food, but it’s also the cost of materials and maintenance and repair,” said E. Nichole Taylor, the director of food and nutrition at Chichester School District in Pennsylvania. “I saw a 37 percent increase in repair costs alone. Our food costs continue to go up, and we don’t see that changing anytime soon, and we know a lot of our manufacturers are facing labor shortages, and that’s causing us to have to pay more.”

Taylor, who also serves as the public policy and legislation committee chair for the association, said she has also struggled to fill positions in her kitchens as the labor market around her changes.

It’s hard to compete with the local McDonald’s and Walmart for employees—especially part-time workers—when those businesses pay more per hour, Taylor said. Parents who want part-time jobs so they can be home with their children, she said, also have more options now with remote work.

Taylor, a former chef, struggles to find the skilled labor she needs for her kitchens, which means investing more in training on sanitation practices and other kitchen skills.

“How to hold your knife, how to properly cut without getting cut, what is a julienne from a dice, do they know what you mean when you say you need a quarter-inch dice without wasting a bunch of the product?” she said. “If I was going to give them raw meat, can you trim the fat off without taking off too much of the muscle and protein?”

Ninety-nine percent of nutrition directors said increasing costs are a significant or moderate challenge to their operations. Ninety percent said staff shortages are a challenge.

A growing share of nutrition directors from last year say that federal reimbursement rates for reduced-priced or free meals for low-income families are insufficient. Nine in 10 nutrition directors said they had serious or moderate concerns about the financial sustainability of their school meal programs three years from now.

In a position paper released with the report, the association called on Congress to increase federal funding for school meals.

It’s not all bad news

However, the report is not all bad news.

In some ways, school nutrition services appear to be bouncing back from the pandemic and the supply chain problems it kicked off. Fewer school nutrition directors are flagging shortages of supplies, equipment, and parts or delays and longer-than-normal lead times for purchases as major challenges.

Even student meal debt appears by one metric to be improving. Seventy percent of school nutrition directors listed student meal debt as a significant or moderate challenge last school year, dropping to 61 percent this school year. In many districts, unpaid meal charges were accumulating at an alarming rate at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.

Part of the problem was that families did not realize that the federal pandemic-era initiative to make school meals free to all students had ended and that they needed to be paying for the food their children ate at school. Even among students who qualified for free- and reduced-priced meals, districts struggled to get word out that after two years of not having to submit any paperwork, their families needed to do so to continue receiving subsidized meals. In this latest survey, 70 percent of nutrition directors said that getting families to submit free- and reduced-price meal applications was a challenge this year, down from 75 percent last year.

Additional findings from the report:

  • More than half of districts said they are increasing the amount of locally grown and raised foods they serve.
  • 53 percent said they are increasing how much food they prepare from scratch.
  • And 40 percent of districts report having a farm to school or school garden initiative to increase student consumption of school meals.

The report is based on a survey of 1,343 school meal program directors across the country.

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