The perfect storm that threatens the quality of healthy school meals

When we think about school food reform in this country, we might think about the fact that Child Nutrition Reauthorization has been taken up by Congress this week. While there’s much in the bill to be optimistic about, we still hear kids complaining that they’re not getting enough food, school nutrition services directors complaining that the reimbursement rate is too low and others complaining that the guidelines are still too strict. I choose to think about all the school districts and school food service professionals who have been working tirelessly to get better food onto our kids’ plates.

But what we’re probably not thinking about is immigration reform, rising minimum wage, low unemployment and our growing economy. We should be, perhaps, even more so than calls for “relaxing” the guidelines on whole grains, fruits and vegetables or salt, which has garnered much media attention. A little known fact is that outside of the caliber and experience of school food professionals, payroll cost — including benefits — is often one of the biggest factors influencing the quality of school meals. I can almost see you rolling your eyes — so let me explain

The federal reimbursement rate schools get is approximately $3 per child for those students who qualify for a “free” lunch. From this meager amount, nutrition service departments need to cover payroll, benefits, food, cleaning supplies, transportation, uniforms, paper supplies, equipment and often custodial services, accounting services and human resource services and utilities. However, by far the largest proportion of costs is spent on food and payroll. In fact, in many districts the combined food and payroll costs are 90 percent or more of the department’s total revenue. But here’s the rub: how that 90 percent is split between the two. If, for instance, payroll is 45 percent of revenue, then food cost could be 45 percent, which is a reasonable amount to spend on food. However if payroll costs rise to, say, 55 percent or 60 percent of revenue, then food costs could drop as low as 30 percent, which would dramatically decrease the quality of the food being served.

So back to immigration, unemployment, wages and the economy. In my school district, as in many others across the country that I’ve spoken with, staffing has become our number one challenge. Nationally, our unemployment rate is hovering at 5 percent, cut almost in half in the past six years from 10 percent in January 2010. In Colorado, the rate is approximately 3 percent — basically full employment. Great news — right? Well, let’s look at this through the school food lens. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in recent history. The economy is booming, especially in the food service sector. Add to that the widespread movement to raise starting wages at fast food companies to $15 (which, as a “living-wage” proponent, I support), and a growing economy, which supports this. Again, great for our country. But let’s add one more consideration to our perfect storm: immigration laws and reform.

The food service world has been run for decades on the “backs” of immigrant workers. In fact, go into the “back of the house” in the majority of restaurants in America, and you’ll see the restaurant kitchens being run by immigrants, often their first employment when they come to the U.S. But for the first time in many years, the federal government announced that more Mexican immigrants are leaving this country than coming into it, and I can only surmise that this is true of other ethnic groups as well. Our country is fighting a war on immigrants under the go-to rationale that “they” are taking our jobs, and as a result, the employee pool for the food service sector is shrinking. As it does, the quality of the food we serve our kids could suffer as well. Wages will go up, the workforce will tighten and fewer and fewer people will be available for employment in schools.

So, back to our “perfect storm.” School food service departments have traditionally run on low wages. In fact, the department’s staff are paid the lowest hourly wage of any department within the district by as much as $2 to $3 for their starting wage. Additionally, since the food service department budgets are so limited, many districts hire part-time workers who are likely to leave when higher wages or full-time employment is offered.

In the Denver metro area where I work, the starting wage for school food staff is generally under $12. So let’s posit that at $12 an hour, a nutrition director can run their department with a 50 percent payroll cost and a 40 percent food cost. But what happens when we have to compete for workers at a $15 starting wage, which, including benefits, could add up to $20 or more? What happens is that the payroll percentage creeps up to 55 percent to 60 percent, and the money that’s left for food goes down, and with it the quality that we’ve worked so hard to improve in the past 10 years.

We now know Congress will uphold most of the school nutrition guidelines that have paved the way for healthier school food, a fact for which I’m extremely grateful. But, what I’d like to see as part of the coming discussions is how we’re going to staff school food departments in the future. How are we going to compete for employees with a $3 lunch reimbursement rate, and most of all, how can we ensure that we balance living wages for our staff with high-quality food for our students? That’s the challenge I’m throwing down to our lawmakers: Balance living wages with the health of our children and realize how immigration reform, wages and the economy all play a role in the food on our kids’ plates.

More from U.S. News

10 Healthy Meals You Can Make in 10 Minutes

10 Concerns Parents Have About Their Kids’ Health

9 Foods That Can Keep Your Brain Sharp

The Perfect Storm That Threatens the Quality of Healthy School Meals originally appeared on

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up