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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