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Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, “competitive foods” in schools will be subject to new nutritional standards. Competitive foods include à la carte cafeteria items like pizza, French fries, and ice cream, as well as snacks and beverages sold in vending machines or at snack bars, school stores, or other locations.
Referred to as “competitive foods” because they compete with meals served through the National School Lunch Program, these foods and beverages are currently inconsistently regulated and frequently high-calorie, low-nutrient options. Competitive foods are more common at secondary than at elementary schools. A 2005 survey revealed that 32 percent of elementary schools and more than 60 percent of secondary schools offered non-milk a la carte items. Vending machines were found in 27 percent of elementary, 87 percent of middle, and 98 percent of high schools.
Some school districts are worried about potential lost revenue when the new standards for competitive foods go into effect. In a recent report by the Economic Research Service, Nutrition Standards for Competitive Foods in Schools: Implications for Foodservice Revenues, my colleagues and I used national surveys from 2002-03 and 2004-05 (latest data available) to look at the share of school foodservice revenues generated by competitive foods and how this share varied across schools and school districts.
We found that foodservice revenues from competitive foods, including milk, differ greatly between elementary and secondary schools. In 2005, average revenues at elementary schools were just under $8,000 per year; revenues were six and nine times greater for middle and high schools, respectively. School Food Authorities (SFAs), the foodservice management units for school districts, reported obtaining, on average, 12 percent of revenues from competitive foods. Revenues were skewed—shares for over half of SFAs were less than average, while 10 percent of SFAs received 36 percent or more of revenues from competitive foods.
While there has been concern that the loss of revenue would hurt poorer schools, SFAs with higher shares typically were located in more affluent districts and served fewer low-income students receiving free and reduced-price meals. For school foodservice operations concerned about covering their expenses, the challenge will be to develop strategies for maintaining revenues in a healthier school nutrition environment.