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.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.
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.
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.There is no mention of state subsidies, if any.
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.
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.