The Money Question: How is the School Cafeteria Funded?

Healthy Food Choices in Schools February 10, 2016 Print Friendly and PDF

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Imagine running your own restaurant with a captive audience of customers who eat lunch each day.  Now imagine providing these customers a complete, five component meal that consists of a meat entrée, fruit, vegetable, whole grain item and milk.  Finally, imagine having only $2.93 to purchase the items necessary to provide this entire meal!  And don’t forget the other things you need to run your restaurant and prepare those meals – things like equipment, (ovens, stoves, coolers, freezers), electricity, small wares (pots, pans, dishes, serving utensils) and all of the wages and benefits for your staff.  That is what school cafeterias all over the United States do each and every day!

The National School Lunch Program makes it possible for all children attending school in the U.S. to receive a nutritious lunch every school day.  The program provides per meal cash reimbursements to help schools provide this meal.  This means that all eligible schools can participate and all children attending those schools have the opportunity to eat a school lunch.  Schools participating in the program also receive agricultural commodities as a supplement to the per-meal cash reimbursements, based on the number of lunches they serve.  In other words, the more students that eat lunch, the more commodity supplements the school cafeteria can receive. This past school year, the commodity value schools received amounted to $ .23 per lunch.  Some states do provide some additional per funding meal, but it is not universal for all states and neither is the amount provided.  You can find a complete list of what each state offers for funding by clicking here.

Some students may qualify to receive free or reduced-price meal benefits, which determines the exact amount of reimbursement received per meal.  The above mentioned $2.93 is the amount of reimbursement for providing a free meal to a student.  The point to be made here is that the school cafeteria, is in fact, a business.  It must be self-supporting, even though it not permitted to be a “for profit” business, the cafeteria is supposed to be an “even money” operation.  In other words, they are only supposed to bring in enough money to cover their operating costs and no more.  In fact, they are allowed to have no more than three months operating expense on hand.  Any amount in excess is subject to seizure by the state entity that monitors the school lunch programs.  In many states, it is the State Department of Education. 

It can be quite a balancing act to provide a nutritious, tasty meal each day!  Not many restaurants can claim to provide a complete, well-balanced meal with proper portion sizes and charge less than $3.00.   Furthermore, if a student doesn’t have enough money in their account to cover the cost of their lunch, schools happily allow the student to “charge” their meal, and pay the next day, or when they can.  Try doing that at a chain or even local restaurant!  School cafeterias do their very best to nurture and nourish students so they can become the leaders of tomorrow.  It is an act of love for the staff running these school “restaurants”.  Understanding how school cafeterias operate is the first step to learning how you can help to support their efforts.  To find out how you can get involved and see what makes your school cafeteria unique, contact the district Child Nutrition or Food Service Director!


Contributor 

Kathy Burrill, Chisago Lakes Area Schools

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.