POLK COUNTY -- A federal mandate has school districts in Polk County -- and everywhere else -- considering whether to raise the price of school lunches next fall.
Central School District approved a 25 cent hike for a meal for students not covered under the free or reduced lunch program for 2011-12.
Dallas School District, meanwhile, approved this week what amounts to an additional 75 cents and $1 a week for lunch for its students in grades 1-8 and high school, respectively.
"I hope that paying another $1.25 a week won't hurt people, but I can't answer for some of those families," said Mike Vetter, Central's food and nutrition services manager. "Anytime you have to pay more for something, it's difficult to accept."
The changes are part of a reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program -- the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 -- that goes into effect on July 1.
School food authorities (SFAs) must close the gap between full-priced meals for children who are ineligible for free and reduced meals and what the government pays to reimburse free meals during the next three years, according to the law.
The provision won't impact students receiving free or reduced meals, or free breakfasts and dinners.
Officials from Falls City and Perrydale school districts said they will wait for direction from the Oregon Department of Education before changing lunch price schedules.
Vetter recommended the change to the Central School Board after consulting with state officials.
"I thought it was something that needed to be taken care of sooner rather than later," Vetter said.
The United States Department of Agriculture reimburses districts for meals for free or reduced-priced students.
For non-eligible -- paid -- meals, districts receive 28 cents.
USDA claims the change is an issue of parity. Federal research showed the average prices charged for lunches in some SFAs are less than production costs, the agency said.
This increases subsidies for higher-income kids because federal funds intended for free/reduced lunches are filling the gap between what a paid lunch costs and what a school receives for it, according to USDA.
Central has managed to stave off lunch price hikes for about a decade. But the expense of producing a meal -- $1.95 to $2 -- has grown because of ingredient prices and surcharges for fuel, Vetter said.
With the federal change, he'll have to make up a 71 cent-reimbursement difference for meals at the elementary school and 96 cents for secondary schools by 2014.
"All of us in our households are being nickel and dimed to death," he said. "We're seeing the same thing in food service."
Dallas School District was to consider a 15 cent increase for paid elementary and middle school lunches and 35 cents for high school meals.
Dallas Superintendent Christy Perry said her food services director had recommended raising prices, though the recession makes the timing poor. That district's school board gave final approval to the plan this week.
The mandate includes a provision that would require SFAs to absorb the cost of narrowing the reimbursement gap if it doesn't raise school lunch prices.
"We couldn't afford something like that ... not when we're laying off teachers," Perry said.
Paid school lunches
* Central School District:
2010-11 -- $1.75 for elementary students; $2 for middle and high school students.
2011-12 -- $2 for elementary students; $2.25 for middle and high school students.
* Students in district on free/reduced lunch -- 65 percent
* Dallas School District:
2010-11 -- $1.80 for elementary students; $2 for middle school students; $2.15 for high school students.
2011-12 -- $1.95 for elementary students; $2.15 for middle school students; $2.35 for high school students.
* Students on free/reduced lunch -- 44 percent
How it Works
* Explanation of how Equity in School Lunch Pricing works, using an example provided by Dallas School District:
The current USDA reimbursement rate for free lunches is $2.74 a meal. Dallas' current reimbursement for "paid" students -- those not eligible for free lunch -- is 26 cents. Under the equity provision, the minimum average price for a paid lunch should total $2.48.
The current average price of a Dallas paid lunch -- among its different grade levels -- is $1.93.
So the district would have three years to make up that 55 cent difference.