Soaring food prices are making it more difficult for schools, child care programs and summer foodservice programs to provide healthy, low-cost meals for children, witnesses told the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee during a special hearing last week. The hearing was the first held by Congress to examine how rising food costs are affecting U.S. child nutrition programs.
In a letter sent to Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon, IDFA expressed concern that the demand for milk in schools may decrease if school districts are forced by financial fears to switch to less expensive milk packaging, expand their offerings of cheaper and less-nutritious beverages, and raise the a la carte price of milk. Schools currently must include milk with all subsidized meals, but a la carte sales compete against other beverages offered for sale in schools. The letter has become part of the official hearing record.
"Milk has played a prominent role in schools for over 65 years, when our government first started subsidizing milk in schools under the Special Milk Program," IDFA's letter states. "The nutritional value of milk and dairy products in schools, not cost constraints, should be the primary consideration in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's nutrition programs."
Each year, 31 million children are served by the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Program, and summer foodservice programs, which provide free meals and snacks to children in low-income communities over summer vacation. President George Bush's 2009 budget includes $14.5 billion for these programs.
Much of the discussion at the hearing focused on whether this level of funding to school districts is keeping up with rising costs. IDFA urged the committee to consider expanding the current milk reimbursements to all schools as part of the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which expires in 2009.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that while prices for essentials like bread, milk and cheese increased by 17 percent in the past year, the federal reimbursement rate for child nutrition programs only rose by three to four percent. Aside from slight annual indexed adjustments, the reimbursement rate for the National School Lunch Program has remained stagnant for the past 20 years.
According to preliminary results of a new survey unveiled by the School Nutrition Association at the hearing, 75 percent of school nutrition directors plan to increase school meal prices for students, and 62 percent plan to reduce staff to help cope with higher food costs in the coming year.
“With today’s economy making it harder and harder for families to pay the bills, more children than ever are in need of healthy, nutritious, and inexpensive meals,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the chairman of the committee. “It is deeply worrisome that climbing food costs, combined with stagnant federal support for child nutrition programs, may force schools and programs to offer less healthy options for kids, raise prices for school meals, or serve fewer children.”
As part of its letter, IDFA provided graphs that show how farm costs of producing milk have increased in the past 10 years and how the reimbursement rate for USDA's Special Milk Program is driven by the producer price index for fluid milk manufacturing. To read the testimony and these graphs, click here.
To read witness testimony presented during the hearing, click here.