Monday, April 14, 2008

Schools Lunch Costs

The other day at my favorite bagel shop, I noticed a sign informing customers as to the reason behind recent price increases (not that they were that much). Between December 2007 and today, the price of a 50 pound bag of wheat flour (of which they use a lot in bagels) had almost doubled and they expect it could reach $50 per bag this summer. The increase in wheat prices didn't really hit us that hard (I don't go the bagel shop all that often) and while my kids eat a lot of bread and the price had gone up, we can absorb that cost to a certain extent. But it was only a matter of time before the problem started hitting home in other ways and hitting the schols hard.
Sharp rises in the cost of milk, grain and fresh fruits and vegetables are hitting cafeterias across the country, forcing cash-strapped schools to raise prices or pinch pennies by serving more economical dishes. Some school officials on a mission to help fight childhood obesity say it's becoming harder to fill students' plates with healthy, low-fat foods.

Several Washington area school systems -- including those in Prince George's, Fairfax and Prince William counties and Alexandria -- are proposing to increase lunch prices next school year. For Prince George's schools, it would be the first increase in a decade.

For Montgomery schools, this year's dairy bill is expected to be about $600,000 more than last year. Officials expect to decide in June whether to seek an increase in meal prices.

Becky Domokos-Bays, director of food and nutrition for Alexandria schools, said schools need to raise prices to cover rising food and labor costs but worries that even small increases will strain middle-class families who don't qualify for a price break. The School Board approved a 10-cent increase for students who pay full price, raising the lunch price in elementary school to $2.15 and in middle and high schools to $2.45.

"There's a tipping point somewhere, and I think we're there," Domokos-Bays said. "I don't know how much more families can afford to pay."

School meal programs across the country are run somewhat like restaurants, relying on federal and state subsidies and profits from meal and snack sales and catering services to buy food and pay workers. Rising labor costs, coupled with the recent push for healthier meals, which has meant serving higher-priced foods such as whole grain breads and fresh vegetables, has squeezed budgets. Soaring food prices make it even harder to break even.
Of the many so-called social services schools provide, breakfasts and lunches are pretty much the only one I whole-heartedly support. Peanut, my oldest daughter is far too picky an eater to rely on school lunches and her school does not have a large segment of children on free or reduced price lunches (an rough indicator of poverty). But nonetheless, students and their parents sometimes rely on the schools to provide a decent meal or two. I have no objection to that and I know that the schools work hard to provide decent meals and keep the costs down as much as possible.

But with rising wholesale prices (exacerbated by rising transportation costs), an increase in the price of school lunches is all but inevitable.

The Post article discusses the federal subsidy for school lunches:
This year, the U.S. Agriculture Department is giving schools $2.47 per lunch to serve free meals to children from the poorest families, up from $2.40 last year, a 3 percent increase. In the same time, milk prices rose about 17 percent and bread nearly 12 percent.

The federal government provides $2.07 per meal for students eligible for a reduced-price lunch and 23 cents a meal for students who pay full price. Schools also receive some foods, including meat, cheese and canned goods, purchased by the federal government.
There is no mention of state subsidies, if any.

But what is missing is that borderline student, the student whose family makes just too much for a free lunch or a reduced lunch. The determining line for free and reduced lunch is based in large part upon the federal poverty line and for a family of four in my home county of Frederick, MD, the cutoff line is $38,203 in annual income. But above that income level, the family is expected to pay full price, but the change in the price for lunches, when coupled with all the other increases, really puts the squeeze on a family with a household income of $40,000.

While the prices for lunches will go up (most likely), I really doubt that the federal government is going to alter the eligibility for a free or reduced meal subsidy, so the food prices will hit at home and will hit at school.


Betty said...

I am sure the prices will go up, but you are right. A lot of busy families depend on the school to have a hot lunch available. Plus, it's probably the best meal some kids get all day.

Polski3 said...

At the district where I work and my sons attend ( in California ), the price of school lunch has just doubled. Those on Free or reduced lunch are, for now, not subjected to the increase. Students who buy lunch now pay $2.00 instead of $1.00.