School lunch prices may increase next year

For the average family, a trip to the grocery store has taken a larger bite out of the budget in the last few years. When you are a school district that makes 613,000 meals a year for hungry students, that food price increase can be devastating to a balanced budget. Add on the changes to federal guidelines and the rising cost of food service, and that’s the reason the Stillwater Area School Board is considering raising lunch prices by 10 cents per meal next year.

Price increases are being required for school districts across the country by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the federal school lunch program.

“As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, which we are, are required to have a pay equity rate,” director of operations Dennis Bloom said. “It is a weighted average per school lunch, and our average is $2.44. USDA guidelines say that our average should be $2.65. We are below what our average should be.”

The board considered the increase to school lunches at its May 22 meeting. Current district lunch prices are $2.30 at the elementary and $2.60 at the secondary schools. Those prices are in the middle on a range of school lunch prices in area school districts.

“There are some that are more expensive, and some that are less,” Bloom said.

In order for the school lunch price to be in line with the USDA price index, the school lunch prices should be raised by $0.20, or by $33.80 per year for a student who eats a school lunch every day. The USDA is allowing schools to increase school prices by only 10 cents in the first year for a new lunch price of $2.40 at the elementary level and $2.70 at secondary schools. These new prices would not change Stillwater’s price ranking compared to similar districts in the area.

“The staff is recommending a price increase of 10 cents, in part because these guidelines change every year, and in a year’s time we might be fine and not need to raise the price higher,” Bloom said.

The school district is also looking at the increase to the school lunch program because the food service department has been operating for the last four years with a dwindling food service fund balance.

“The rising cost of food and supplies is increasing,” Bloom said. “The June 2013-14 food service department has an operating budget of $3,933,622, but will be left with an estimated fund balance of $4,278 at the end of the year.”

With 0.01 percent of the yearly budget in reserves to carry into next year, the school district food service will need to increase revenue to avoid a negative balance should food prices continue to rise. Based on 613,000 paid lunches in one year, a 10-cent increase will provide $61,300 in additional revenue. The preliminary budget for 2014-2015 food service department, including increases in food costs, salaries and staff reductions, is $3,755,190.

The estimated revenue with the 10-cent increase for lunches would raise the budget to $3,792,750, and would grow the end-of-year fund balance to $37,560.

The staff does not recommend a price increase to school breakfast, Bloom said, and the price for a school breakfast would not change. The current price is $1.30 at elementary schools and $1.40 at secondary schools.

“If we raise the price for a meal, we have seen a decrease in participation for a while,” Bloom said. “We don’t want to discourage students from starting the day with something to eat.”

The school board expects to vote on the proposed change at its June 12 meeting. The last time the school district increased lunch prices was in the 2011-2012 school year, when prices went up by 10 cents for both elementary and secondary schools.

For some area families, an increase to the cost of school lunches would hurt their ability to pay for their child’s meal. To help struggling families, new legislation at the state level was put into place this year to help school district feed all hungry students. The state will provide funding for all kindergarten students in the district to receive free breakfast beginning next year. The state has also added funding toward the free and reduced cost lunch program that will effectively end the reduced cost lunch program and instead provide entirely free meals to those who previously would have not qualified for free lunches. “

The funding to the free lunch program is not money that will help our budget, but it will help our parents,” finance director Kristen Hoheisel said. “Parents who were paying a portion will now have the entire meal paid for. It’s a real win for our parents.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

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