Public Schools Face the Rising Costs of Serving Lunch

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The federal government is making school meals more nutritious this year, but also more expensive.

Under a little-noticed provision of the child nutrition bill signed by President Obama in December, which brought more fresh produce and less whole milk to cafeterias nationwide, school districts are required to start bringing their prices in line with what it costs to prepare the meals, eventually charging an average of $2.46 for the lunches they serve.

Though the law suggests that prices go up by a maximum of 10 cents a year, the town of Seymour, Conn., raised its prices by 25 cents, after years without increases; the new prices, $2.25 a day for elementary school pupils, $2.50 for middle-school students and $2.75 for high school students ? are listed on the district?s Web site, just under the words, ?Welcome Back to School!? In Suffolk County, on Long Island, the president of the Board of Education at the Riverhead Central School District ? which also raised prices by a quarter a day, or 12.5 percent for most students ? said that parents had cornered her and other officials at supermarkets, gas stations and before meetings, questioning the increase.

?All we could tell them was we really had no choice,? said the president, Ann Cotten-DeGrasse.

Officials are already bracing for a backlash as the increases pile up.

?Our parents haven?t complained, but I don?t know if they?ll be as understanding if we do it again next year, and the year after, and then the year after that,? said Louise D?Angelo, director of food services at the North Syracuse Central School District in upstate New York, where lunch prices just went up by 25 cents across all grades ? to $1.75 in elementary school, $2 in middle school and $2.25 in high school.

The new pricing requirement, which comes amid school budget cuts and a lingering recession, is the first time the federal government has gotten into the business of cafeteria prices since its school lunch program was established in 1946. Under the roughly $10 billion program, families with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty level? $28,665 a year for a family of four ? are eligible for free meals. Those that earn 130 percent to 185 percent of poverty level, or $40,793 for a family of four, qualify for reduced-price meals.

The federal government reimburses districts $2.72 for free meals, $2.32 for reduced-price meals and 26 cents for the rest. Generally, this money is combined with proceeds from the sale of meals and snacks into a single pot. But there is a wide range of what districts charge paying customers: in Fairfax County, Va., lunch costs $2.65 in elementary school and $2.75 in middle and high schools, while in Austin, Tex., it is $2.15 and $2.50, respectively. Other districts have kept prices far lower than costs ? in New York City, for example, there is a $1.10 gap ? to make lunch affordable.

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