School Board forced to raise 2011–12 lunch prices

Federally mandated increases add 5 cents to the cost of lunch this year

by Jim Boyle
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law last December, will make sweeping changes to the nation’s school lunch program.

The first one, however, is not too popular locally, as it has forced the Elk River Area School District to raise its lunch prices by a nickel for the coming school year.
And more increases may be on the horizon.

School districts have been told they must gradually raise the price they charge students so that it is in line with what the federal government pays for meals under the free lunch program.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued the directive to school districts nationwide in an effort to ensure their school lunch prices are consistent for all students served. The USDA requires all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program to provide the same level of support for lunches served to students who are not eligible for free or reduced price lunches as for students who are eligible for free lunches.

Right now the base price for federally subsidized meals is $2.72.  This is how much is dished out for meals students receive for free. The federal government also gives 26 cents to each meal that is paid for by students. The directive requires districts that charge less than $2.46  for the current school year to increase their prices. Most school districts charge less for paying students, and some charge considerably less.

The cost of an elementary school lunch in Elk River this past school year was $2.30 and for middle school and high school student lunches it was $2.40.  Each will go up a nickel this year after Monday night’s Elk River Area School Board meeting.

The School Board authorized the increase — only because it had to.

Those needing to catch up with the amount of subsidy for free and reduced price lunches must raise prices by at least a nickel but no more than a dime this year.

Based on a cursory Google search, some school districts in Minnesota and across the nation will have a lot more catching up to do. Some districts charge only $1.70 for elementary lunches.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is about more than lunch prices. Nutritional guidelines will also be established and new programs will be pushed.

The Elk River Area School District contracts with Sodexo, and school officials have been very pleased with the service.

Julee Miller, who heads up the operation for Sodexo, addressed the board Monday night. She  outlined success stories from last year and highlighted some improvements planned for this year. The hike in prices is not considered one of the improvements to the school lunch program.

“It’s not that we’re happy about it,” she said. “We’re mandated.”

Randy Anderson, the school district’s executive director of business services, echoes Miller’s sentiment in a press release.

“We, along with school districts across the nation, do not like increasing costs for student meals, but in this case we have no viable alternative,” Anderson stated. “We must be in compliance with the law.”