Student Well-Being

New Federal School-Meals Rules Could Lead to Rising Lunch Prices

September 13, 2011 5 min read
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More than 80 percent of the students in Leah Schmidt’s school district on the southeast side of Kansas City, Mo., live in poverty. Among the others, many students come from families whose household income is just a few hundred dollars too high for them to qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunches.

But Ms. Schmidt, the director of nutrition services in the Hickman Mills C-1 district, raised the price of a school lunch this year by a dime to comply with new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules about meal prices. The rules, created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010, are intended to help keep the federal contribution for free and reduced-price meals from subsidizing lunches and breakfasts eaten by students from families well off enough to pay full price.

USDA research has found that the average prices charged for paid lunches in some schools are less than the cost of producing those lunches.

As a result, in districts across the country, students now back in school will find themselves paying more for meals this year. Prices may rise for each of the next several years, too, until the amount charged to students paying in full matches what the federal government kicks in for everybody else.

Part of the rationale: As the nutritional demands on school cafeterias grow, expenses are growing, too. Proposed nutrition standards under the Healthy, Hunger-Free law would require providing fruit every morning at breakfast, more vegetables at lunch, access to free water at all meals, and other changes that will cost more money.

Ryan Pierre Charles, a Miramar, Fla., 1st grader, drinks water at his school. Schools now must provide water to all pupils.

Ms. Schmidt fears that with so many families in her 6,000-student district falling just shy of qualifying for free meals, students will stop eating school lunches, or like last year, rack up hundreds of dollars of charges they can’t afford to pay. She’s had to answer calls from parents who were shocked to learn they didn’t qualify for free or low-priced meals, sometimes because of as little as $200 in income above the federal limits.

“The $200 that they’re ahead, now they’re paying for three kids’ school lunches,” Ms. Schmidt said. The USDA says its research shows that what Ms. Schmidt and other food-service directors fear will happen isn’t likely to come true, however. A 2007 USDA analysis found that participation was only 3 percent lower in districts that charged $2 per meal as compared with $1.50 per meal. Other USDA data show that when a meal price is raised 5 cents, fewer than 1 percent of students who pay full price for a meal stop buying.

Costing It Out

The new meal-pricing rule, which could change after the USDA sees it in action, requires districts to look hard at their costs and prices. School cafeterias get $2.46 from the federal government for each reduced-price meal they serve. Many districts charge students who don’t qualify for subsidized meals far less.

With the increase, full-price lunches in Hickman Mills will cost $1.60 in elementary school, $1.85 in middle school, and $2.10 in high school.

It’s unknown how many other districts will raise prices because of the new rules, the USDA said. The only ones that wouldn’t must be charging at least $2.46 for lunch now. For the rest, the alternative is to use state or local money or profits from the sale of other foods to make up for the shortfall in paid meal prices based on a formula created by the USDA.

While many districts charge less for students paying full price, that doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong, said Michael Boone, the associate director of child nutrition for the San Marcos school district in Texas. He boosted lunch prices 5 cents, to $1.75 in elementary school and $2.05 in middle and high school, for this year.

Mr. Boone said he understands that districts losing money in school nutrition programs may need to hike prices, but argued that for those like his that break even, it doesn’t make sense.

Raising prices while the economy continues to flounder bothers him, too. Mr. Boone said since the economic downturn began, the percentage of students in his 7,800-student district who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals has increased by 6 percent.

Hidden Expenses

One reason cafeteria costs are rising is another provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids law: Schools must provide free water to children where they are eating lunch, starting this school year, including in the classroom.

“I’m sure people out in the community think, ‘How difficult is that?’ ” said Dora Rivas, who runs the food-service program for the 157,000-student Dallas Independent School District. “When you’re looking at meeting a requirement at 200 schools, it’s going to be an implementation process. It’s going to involve training, supplies, and materials.”

At some of the more than 240 campuses in the Broward County, Fla., district that serve lunch, water fountains don’t work or aren’t close enough to the cafeteria to honor the federal rule, said Mark Mills, the director of food and nutrition services in the 257,000-student district.

For those schools, the district bought water coolers and cups—lots and lots of cups. Every school serving lunch was asked to buy at least 1,000 Styrofoam cups with lids, for a total of more than 240,000 cups.

Before the federal rules kicked in, California had already passed its own law requiring access to water during meals. It took effect July 1.

In the 53,000-student San Francisco Unified School District, making sure students have access to water where drinking fountains aren’t available or in the right location became a project for the city’s Public Utilities Commission, the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said Heidi Anderson, a spokeswoman for the district.

As part of that initiative, five tap water stations were installed in pilot schools over the summer. More schools will get water stations in the future, once the project can find a way to pay for them without siphoning from the district budget. Through a bond program that includes money to modernize cafeterias, installing a water fountain or tap has become a part of the construction plans, Ms. Anderson said.

The federal requirement also can be fulfilled if students have access to a faucet where they can fill up cups or their own water bottles, and some studies have shown that when water is easy for students to access, they drink more of it.

But just because schools make sure water is available doesn’t mean students will automatically drink it, Mr. Mills said.

“Is it something that kids are really picking up on?” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Federal School-Meals Rules Could Lead to Rising Lunch Prices

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