Food prices at elementary and secondary schools have skyrocketed — up 296% in April compared to the same time last year, according to new consumer price index data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The significant increase in school meal costs is much higher than the overall uptick of U.S. food prices, at 7.7% in the same year-over-year period.
Increasing food prices in schools was the No. 1 challenge reported by nearly all (99.8%) of the 1,230 school meal program directors surveyed for a January report by the School Nutrition Association. Additionally, 88.5% of respondents called these costs a “significant challenge.”
In June 2022, Congress passed the Keep Kids Fed Act, which raised federal reimbursement rates for school lunches by 40 cents and for breakfast programs by 15 cents during the 2022-23 school year. SNA has advocated for Congress to permanently extend the higher reimbursement rates.
“Acute supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and inflation have dramatically increased costs for school meal programs,” the association said in its 2023 position paper. “School meal programs will become financially unsustainable. Losses will cut into education budgets, impeding efforts to meet the needs of students and jeopardizing progress in school nutrition programs.”
After the federal pandemic-era waiver granting free school meals nationwide expired, district meal debt began to grow just months later. But when families don’t qualify for free and reduced-price meals and can’t afford to pay off their accruing school meal debt, that financial burden is carried over to the district to handle.
Meal debt has been a persistent issue considering that prior to the pandemic, 75% of districts faced unpaid meal debt by the end of the 2017-18 school year, according to SNA.