Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Serving it up at Manenberg Primary!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Wait, Italian school lunches cost HOW MUCH?!

Moi! :) (Hello, in Finnish!)

There was a holiday (of sorts) in Finland last Thursday evening called "Night of the Arts." It was a night of live music, free entrances to all museums and art galleries, and a general evening for Finnish debauchery and fun!

[There were sumo wrestling games, people blowing bubbles - and wow, was downtown Helsinki crowded!]

This holiday also signifies the end of summer in Finland ... which makes me quite sad (and cold). Today's weather: rainy with a high of 14 C, or 57 F. Brrr, get me out of here quickly! Just kidding - I genuinely love Helsinki, it is a gorgeous city with a distinct culture.

[Harbor in Helsinki, back when it was warmer ...]

Anyway, it's time to move onto the economics of the Italian School Lunch program! 

Wait, school lunches cost HOW MUCH?!

As I read articles about Italian school lunches, some of the prices made me gasp. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Italian school lunch programs are more decentralized than US programs, meaning that each district funds its own school lunch program. This results in varying prices throughout the country; in Placenza, a small town that serves 90% locally-sourced meals, a school lunch costs 4.75 euros ($5.30 USD). A meal in Marino costs 3.85 euros. I view this as a drawback to the Italian school lunch program since smaller regions and school districts have lower economies of scale. It costs less per child to provide 100,000 meals than 1,000 meals, so costs will be higher in smaller communities. Furthermore, wealth tends to be concentrated in urban areas, so rural Italian communities have fewer taxpayer dollars and resources to contribute to school lunch. Large cities such as Rome or Florence benefit from having large populations and more resources, and are more readily available to lower the price for families.

[Doesn't the lunch room look so peaceful and proper?]

Depending on the program, the school district subsidizes part of the program and lowers the cost of lunch for all families - such as in Rome, where the cost of the meal is over 5 euros, but families pay a maximum of 2.67 euros per child, per meal. In every program, there are additional subsidies available for families who cannot afford school lunch.

Take Rome, for example. Subsidies are awarded based on a sliding scale, depending on family income. Prices range from 0 to 3 euros. This is somewhat similar in the US, but the US is much simpler; if an American household reaches a threshold for income, a school lunch costs full price, 40 cents, or $0.

I want to break down these costs, though.  In general, Italy spends significantly more money on ingredients than America.* In Rome, the cost for ingredients is 1.5 euros per meal, which is double the amount spent on ingredients in the US (96 cents, or .86 euro). The food director for Rome’s program, Silvana Sari, said that the high cost of ingredients is due to her “high short-term cost, low long-term cost” vision for Italian children’s future. Sari notes that if ingredients are nutritious in a school lunch, then children are more likely to make healthy decisions in the long run.

Financing Italian lunches: High short-term cost, high long-term benefits

Silvana Sari, as well as other Italian food directors, believes that investing larger amounts of “small money” in the school lunch program will result in sizeable decreases in “big money” spent on healthcare in the long run. Her vision has merit.

Obesity and obesity-related healthcare costs
Obesity costs a lot of money worldwide, but especially in the United States healthcare system (surprise). It is estimated that $147 to $210 billion dollars is spent on obesity-related illness and chronic disease every year. Adults affected by obesity spend 42 percent more on direct healthcare costs than adults who are a healthy weight. I could not find the estimated cost of obesity in Italy, but a study by the OECD found that “The growing prevalence of obesity in OECD countries foreshadows increases in the occurrence of health problems ... and higher health care costs in the future.” Billions of dollars are spent on obesity in the US, and I would wager that it adds up to almost a half billion dollars worldwide… it is difficult to wrap my mind around that amount of money.

[It hurts me to see how much we are outspending other countries on healthcare. This is for another Keegan Fellowship project, but reforms need to happen (now).]

But that doesn’t mean the US (or world) has to spend this hefty amount of money. This is where Italian food directors have rationale in investing in high-quality nutritious lunches: studies that have shown that investing small amounts of money in positive health initiatives significantly lower long-term healthcare costs. A 2008 study by the Urban Institute found that “an investment of $10 per person in proven community-based programs to increase physical activity, improve nutrition and prevent smoking and other tobacco use could save the country more than $16 billion annually within five years. That's a return of $5.60 for every $1 invested. Out of the $16 billion, Medicare could save more than $5 billion and Medicaid could save more than $1.9 billion.”  

Wait. A five-to-one return on investment?

That’s amazing.

That sounds like what Rome’s school lunch program is doing. Perhaps the US should give it a try, too. Sadly, there have been no evaluations on Rome’s school lunch program, so we’ll have to wait and see how high quality ingredients affect the long-term health of students.

Conclusion and remarks for next installment

Though it is more expensive (especially in smaller school districts), the high cost of the Italian school lunch programs make economical sense considering the projected long-term benefits for its students. Frankly, the amount of money that the US government is investing in school lunches is too small. Though the USDA’s new nutrition guidelines require an increase of governmental spending of 10 cents per lunch (and 27 cents for breakfast), Congress only allocated 6 additional cents to these programs (Should I mention that this 6 additional cents was taken from the budget of EBT/food stamps? This topic is for another day … *steps off of soapbox*).  

I expect to post one more installment on economics for Italian school lunches, be on the lookout for it soon!


* It is important to note that this statement is complicated by several factors: scale, as well as the type of economies Italy and America have. For example, as mentioned earlier in my discussion of economies of scale, the US has 50+ million children, while the entire population of Italy is 59 million. So, it might be cheaper to feed the many more American students than the 8 million Italian students.  Another complicating factor is the differences in economies. Though both countries are highly industrialized, Italy and America still have sizable farming industries that directly feed into school lunch programs. Since it is common for Italian school lunch programs to buy local ingredients, buying local ingredients is not as expensive as it seems. All of this is to say that directly comparing the costs of ingredients is complex. Anecdotally, having seen both school lunch programs, the quality of Italian food is superior.  

[Grateful for simple, filling breakfasts. Oatmeal with cinnamon and lingonberries, coffee.]

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