School Lunch Prices on the Rise Nationwide

For a long time now I’ve wanted to alert TLT readers to an important development — the rising price of school meals — but, frankly, out of sheer laziness that post has languished in my Drafts folder for months.  Today I got the impetus I needed when the New York Times published a front section story on this very issue.

The bottom line facts you need to know:  under the new school food law passed last year, school districts must bring the price for a paid lunch (that is, a lunch purchased by a student who does not qualify for free or reduced price meals) into line with what the meal actually costs, eventually charging an average of $2.46 per lunch.  Districts can raise their prices gradually, by as little as ten cents a year, until the meal price and costs are in line.

As the New York Times article discusses more fully, the impetus for the price increase was a finding by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization in Washington, that by keeping the price of the full meal too low, the paid meals were effectively being subsidized by the federal dollars which are supposed to be allocated to the meals provided to kids who are on free/reduced lunch.  In other words, if paid meals better represented the costs to produce them, there would be more money in the system to improve the overall quality of meals.

The concern, however, is that the price increases, though modest, will adversely affect the many families who have an income level just above the cut-off for reduced price lunches; for these parents, even an additional ten cents a year could make the difference between being able to buy lunch for their children or not.   Late last year, fellow school food blogger Ed Bruske (aka The Slow Cook) published a post on Grist examining that question in much more detail.   The Times article also notes that a price increase could drive more parents to simply fail to pay for the lunches their children take, which creates a significant financial burden for large urban districts in particular.  A price increase could also decrease overall participation in districts’ programs, thus depriving districts of much needed revenue.

Even though the law contemplates a gradual increase in lunch prices, here in Houston my district decided to raise its paid meal price far more dramatically this year, from $1.85 to $2.25.  When I asked at a Parent Advisory Committee meeting this summer how this price increase would likely impact participation in the program, I was told that the increase affects only about 8% of the students in our district, because the vast majority of kids here — almost 90% — are on free/reduced lunch.  I was also told that a similarly large price increase years ago did not have any adverse effect on participation.  I was a bit skeptical of that latter statement; I’ll try to get an update on participation rates at our next PAC meeting, for interested Houston readers.
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  1. Donna says

    I wonder when the last price hike took place. Families not qualifying for free/reduced may be much more strapped for funds in the current economy than in past years. I imagine that Food Services will know pretty quickly if the increase is having a significant impact. Even this early in the school year, they’d probably see a decline in purchasing if families were opting out of school lunch.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Donna – agreed. I’ll be very interested to hear the answer to this question at the next PAC meeting and will share here.

  2. says

    Just like restaurant and grocery prices, school meal prices vary from one community to the next – as they should. After all, school districts have to take into account local economic conditions when setting school meal prices. Parents in economically depressed urban or rural areas might not be able to afford the higher lunch prices charged in wealthy suburban neighborhoods.

    And as the economy struggles, many families languish just above the financial cut off for free and reduced price school meals. For those families with multiple school aged children, what sounds like a small price increase can serve as a tipping point, driving them out of the school meal programs at the very moment that these programs are working to meet proposed standards for more whole grains, fresh produce and healthier entrees.

    School nutrition professionals have seen this happen before. In 1981, Congress passed legislation that made substantial cuts to school meal programs. TLT Kid-and-Food hero Janet Poppendieck cites in “Free for All” that as a result of this legislation, “Nearly 2,700 schools dropped out of the program, and as lunch prices jumped in schools across the nation, participation by full price students declined from 15.3 million in 1979 to 11.2 million in 1983. That is, the National School Lunch Program lost more than a quarter of its full price customers, much more than the loss that would have been expected due to the declining school enrollments of that period.”

    Declining participation threatens the financial stability of the program, but school nutrition professionals are worried about more than just revenue. What happens to the students whose parents can’t afford higher lunch prices? Will their packed lunch be enough? Will they take their $2 to a local fast food joint? And as more students stop purchasing school meals, will kids decide that school meals are just for “poor kids”?

    School Nutrition Association is calling on USDA to turn this national mandate on meal prices into a pilot program in a limited number of schools with a report back to Congress before the provision becomes national policy.

  3. Barry says

    The price per meal is a very complicated calculation. It is NOT just the cost of the food to make the meals. The actual PMC (per meal cost) includes: food, labor, benefits, all supplies (such as paper and plastic, cleaning supplies, etc), any kitchen utensils (e.g.: pots & pans), utilities if paid by food service, delivery vehicles and even indirect costs. Indirect costs are allowable expenses that the DISTRICT collects FROM the food service funds to pay for OTHER allowable expenses. My point is that the actual COST of the food only accounts for about 22-25% of the PMC. Not all food service operations pay for all of these expenses, but the USDA allows for all of these and even more such as remolding and improvements. The $2.46 is the average from across the U.S. for PMC. Of course some states have labor unions that drive up the costs of labor, food supplies in rural areas cost more and expenses are out of control in others.

    The cost of the PAID meals price does need to be raised to be at least equal with what the PMC is. But not all districts have to meet the $2.46 price point. But each district has to reach their own PMC point. So when some districts have a PMC of up to $3.00, those students will be paying for poor fiscal management of school food service operators.

    Better training for school food service directors has to be included for running a better operation. Having a RD as a director does not mean that they have a understanding in fiscal management. A Director that is a Business Major with food service experience can hire a RD to do the nutritional analysis using computer software programs.

    The PMC does not have to go up anymore than what it already is at. Better management of the operation, reducing the indirect rate from the district, auditor strict analysis of financial controls, and joining a co-op buying group are all ways to control the PMC and NOT have to run the food service operation on the backs of children and parents. There is already enough money wasted in school foodservice just like the rest of the schools and districts.

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