School meal price hikes
A new federal rule will require many metro-area school districts to raise the price of a full-cost lunch this fall. Several districts already have approved changes:
Omaha: 10 cents, to $1.45 for elementary and middle school students and $1.75 for high school students. Breakfast remains free for all students.
Elkhorn: 10 cents, to $2.05 for kindergarten through fifth grade; $2.30 for grades 6 through 12; $3.15 for adults. Elementary school breakfast rises 10 cents to $1.35.
Ralston: 5 cents for elementary school lunch only, to $2.20.
Millard: 10 cents, to $2.15 for elementary school; $2.35 for middle school; and $2.60 for a basic high school meal. Breakfast is not affected.
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When the Omaha Public Schools last raised the cost of a full-price school lunch, President Bill Clinton was finishing his second term in office.
Many of the students who carried their cash and checks to school to pay for those lunches in 2000 have moved on to college and to jobs.
With the school board's vote last week to raise the cost of a full-price meal by a dime, the Omaha district joins others across the country, falling in line with a federal act dictating that the price of school lunches better reflect their cost. The increases also are expected to help pay for the healthy foods required in school lunches — which is the broader goal of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Beginning Aug. 1 in OPS, the tab for a full-price lunch for elementary and middle school students will rise from $1.35 to $1.45. For high school students, the price will increase from $1.65 to $1.75. Breakfast will remain free for all OPS students.
The Elkhorn school board also last week approved a 10-cent increase for full-price lunches and for breakfast, offered at elementary schools
The Ralston Public Schools last month approved a 5-cent increase for elementary school lunches. The Millard school district approved a 10-cent increase for full-price lunches in March but did not change breakfast prices.
Several other districts are weighing options. The Papillion-La Vista schools most likely will propose at least a 5-cent increase, said spokeswoman Annette Eyman. But staff members are still figuring food costs to determine whether they need to go higher.
The increases aren't the first under the new rule that's part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. A number of school districts, including Elkhorn and Millard, raised prices last year, with some also factoring in higher food and transportation costs.
And the increases won't be the last.
“This will be happening every year until it gets to the point where it meets the requirement,” said Tammy Yarmon, OPS nutrition services director.
The aim of the rule is not only to make school lunch prices better reflect costs, but also to reduce the amount of federal money for free and reduced-price lunches that goes to help cover the costs of full-price meals.
Beverly Benes, the Nebraska Department of Education's nutrition services director, said a study several years ago found that the cost of producing a school lunch — including food, labor and operations — was between $2.72 and $3.10.
So the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program, has been asking schools to gradually raise prices, using a formula that considers current prices. Not all districts were required to increase prices last year.
The agency figured that schools last year should be charging $2.46 for a full-price lunch. This year, the target was $2.51, Benes said.
She noted that some school districts tacked on the entire increase last year. The USDA, she said, has discouraged that, given that the increase might be too much for some families who pay full price.
At the same time, districts can choose to cover some of the increase, as long as they don't use federal dollars, she said.
Yarmon said OPS absorbed the increase last year. Given its size, she said then, the district can save a lot through volume and efficiencies in labor and equipment. It won't have that option next year or in the future. “It's mandatory,” she said.
The act's broader goal is to improve the quality of meals, including adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The higher prices are also expected to help offset the cost of those meals.
Yarmon said USDA officials know those meals will cost more, so they want to make sure school districts have prices where they should be.
The meal changes will start appearing on lunch trays this fall in the form of larger portions of fruits and vegetables, Yarmon said. There's also a weekly legume requirement.
Benes said the requirements for more fruits and veggies come with an additional 6-cent reimbursement per meal from the federal government for school districts that can show that their menus pass muster. Making sure they do will be a big focus for Nebraska in the coming year.
Last year's federal reimbursement for a free school lunch was $2.72. The government also paid 26 cents toward the cost of a full-price meal.
The goal, she said, is a good one — helping children eat healthy and become healthier.
“They're getting a really good bargain,” Benes of lunch prices.
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