5/22/12 School board votes to increase lunch prices

School board votes to increase lunch prices
By Mike Wilder The Times-News 5/22/12     
Reprinted with permission.

   In a 4-3 decision, the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education voted Monday night to raise school lunch prices by 10 cents per meal.

   Board members Jackie Cole, Mary Erwin, Kristen Moffitt and Steve Van Pelt voted in favor of the increase. Board members Brad Evans, Tony Rose and Patsy Simpson voted against it.

   The increase means students in elementary, middle and high school will pay $2.20 a meal, rather than the current charge of $2.10.

   The system’s staff recommended the increase to help comply with federal requirements. A relatively new rule says school systems must charge the actual cost of preparing a meal to students paying the full price.

   The rationale is that money used to subsidize the cost of meals should be used to help students who get lunch for free or at a reduced price.

   Opponents said the system shouldn’t add a burden to families already struggling in a sluggish economy.

   School board members and system administrators have been discussing a possible increase since March. Rose has suggested using money from the system’s fund balance, which the federal government allows as an alternative to charging more for lunches, instead of raising prices. On Monday night, he noted that the federal government plans to continue reimbursing the school system for part of the cost of meals for students not receiving free or reduced lunch, though not nearly at the same level.

   Rose said that makes him question whether the government’s stated justification for its requirement is valid, as opposed to the system “being manipulated by the federal government” in being told how to set meal prices.

   Simpson has suggested reducing the price of food offered a la carte in addition to the regular menu to older students as one way to help families get by.

   For parents with children at different levels in the system — which Simpson said is her situation —“If you went down a little bit over here, then I’m still about the same” after the increase.

   Assistant Superintendent Todd Thorpe said the system can explore that option. Child nutrition director Kathy Oakley cautioned it would have “a limited affect on a limited amount of students.” With students receiving free and reduced lunch sometimes buying non-menu items, the benefit would not always go to families paying the full price.

   In response to a question from Simpson, Oakley said systems are required to have a fixed price per meal, rather than charging less for students who take fewer items.

   Rose reiterated his concern that some students, particularly at the elementary level, are taking minimal amounts of food when going through the line. That occurs through the “offer vs. serve” policy designed to cut back on waste. His thought, along the lines of Simpson’s question, was to explore the idea of charging less for students who eat less food.

   While Oakley’s response that the government requires a fixed price to be charged for meals was unchanged, she and Thorpe said a requirement going into place in 2012-13 will affect students’ choices.

   “The children will have to choose a fruit or a vegetable, or both,” Thorpe said, meaning there will be no leaving the service line with a meal that consists solely of a slice of pizza or a hot dog and a container of milk.

   Administrators and school board members anticipate the federal government will require a series of increases to work toward covering meal costs. Those who voted for the increase said little Monday night, but previously said they feel the system has little choice. Oakley has said the federal government could force an increase, if it thinks the system is not making progress toward compliance, as a condition of remaining in the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches.