The federal child nutrition program can be very exacting when it comes to standards for meals, but one state has found that school lunch prices are negotiable with food cooperative purchasing power.
Mississippi has a Statewide Purchasing Cooperative which helps the state to negotiate lower prices for meats, produce, dairy, and other nutritious food that have forced other states to struggle with keeping costs in line.
“We’ve been very fortunate in Mississippi,” said Scott Clements, child nutrition director for the Mississippi Department of Education, told members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. . “We have a Legislature and state board of education (that) are both very cognizant of the challenges we have with nutrition in particular.”
The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act established strict and potentially costly nutrition standards for school lunches. It also set standards for serving sizes of fruiits and vegetables, whole grains, and other food groups. As a result, school systems nationally have been challenged to meet the regulations while coping with increased costs of food and less revenue from declining participation.
In the 2012-13 school year, 47 percent of school meal programs lost money and 90 percent reported higher food costs, according to the 2013 Back to School Trends Survey.
Julia Bauscher, president of the School Nutrition Association, complained at the hearing about the cost of fruits and vegetables, which are subject to price variations depending on growing-season weather. The standards require bread products to be 50 percent whole-grain, but Bauscher told senators products such as whole-grain tortillas and biscuits can be hard to find.
Created in 1992, Mississippi’s Statewide Purchasing Cooperative was the nation’s first statewide child nutrition purchasing organization.
By pooling buying power, Mississippi can easily negotiate cheap prices and find respected sellers of fresh, locally grown produce and whole-grain products, Clements said.
The co-op also coordinates low delivery fees to benefit state public schools, most of which are located in rural areas.