Friday, September 23, 2011

Federal nutrition program may mean higher lunch prices for most school districts

Schools may have to raise lunch prices as a result of the child nutrition bill signed last December after President Obama's latest attempt to provide free meals to school children in poor areas failed. The bill, calling for more fresh produce and less whole milk in school cafeterias, requires districts to raise prices to cover the cost of meal preparation. The changes will happen next school year and will make the national average paid for lunch $2.46, Fernanda Santos of The New York Times reports.

This increase marks the first time since 1946, when the school lunch program started, that the federal government has involved itself with lunch prices. Under the $10 billion program, the government reimburses districts $2.72 for free meals, $2.32 for reduced-price meals and 26 cents for the full-price version. Along with proceeds from meal and snack sales, this money is put into a larger pot, but the range of what schools across the country charge for lunch varies greatly in order to make meals affordable for all students.

The undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition and consumer service, Kevin Concannon, oversees the school lunch program. He told Santos the price increase will allow districts to make adjustments in order to serve kids healthier meals. Some school officials see it differently. Eric Goldstien, who is in charge of New York City Schools' food program, said the bill might make more parents completely skip paying lunch fees, already a problem for districts that have to absorb the unpaid fees, which can reach into the millions of dollars.

There's also a worry that families whose income is just above a threshold for their children to receive free or reduced-price meals may be saddled with a larger financial burden in order to pay higher lunch prices, Santos reports. Diane Pratt-Heavener, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria administrators, told Santos: “We could be shooting ourselves in the foot here if we’re not setting prices at a level that parents are able or willing to pay." (Read more)

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