Why are school lunch programs losing so much money?

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A lunch from Revolution Foods at O. Henry Middle School. Photo by Laura Skelding for the Austin American-Statesman.
A lunch from Revolution Foods at O. Henry Middle School. Photo by Laura Skelding for the Austin American-Statesman.

A lunch from Revolution Foods at O. Henry Middle School. Photo by Laura Skelding for the Austin American-Statesman.

Back-to-school is around the corner, and if you have kids, you can feel a certain energy in the air.

I’ve been chipping away at school supplies, backpacks and better bedtimes for my kids, ages 8 and 4, who for the first time will both be in elementary school.

As I’ve written before, my oldest eats the school lunch most of the time. Turns out, he’s among an increasingly small percentage of students who are not on the free and reduced lunch program who eat the school lunch anyway.

In today’s front page story about the struggles facing local school districts, I learned just how small that percentage is. Reporter Julie Chang found that only 14 percent of  school lunches in the Austin district are consumed by kids not in that assistance program.

Chang’s story today was a follow-up to one earlier this year about a pilot program at O. Henry Elementary to bring in Revolution Foods, an third-party lunch contractor who brings in meals prepared in Houston at a higher cost to both parents and the district.

It turns out, the experiment cost the school district some $56,000, but the news only gets worse when you find out that other schools who are using in-house food service are losing nearly as much money each year because of low participation rates.

Chang addresses the stigma that I’ve battled before, that school lunches are “bad” mostly because we expect them to be, and that if you’d pay close attention to the menu planning and production, you’d appreciate the minor miracle of feeding so many kids food not only that they will eat, but also that meets increasingly high nutritional requirements on an increasingly small budget.

Some initiatives, such as free breakfast for everyone at school, are helping reduce that stigma, but we still have a long way to go before reaching Jamie Oliver-approved conditions in our school cafeterias.

It’s something to think about as you start to getting those lunch boxes ready. I’m not sure what Avery, my picky soon-to-be per-Kingergartener, is going to want to eat for lunch. He’s not as open minded as Julian, but I’m hoping he’ll want to follow his brother’s footsteps with eating the school lunch. It’s certainly easier on me, and I know that the quality of food they’ll eat from the school will be far superior than what I’d have time to assemble day after day.


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