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School lunch price hike blamed on federal rules

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Local families will pay more for their children to eat lunch at school next year, and prices might continue to climb.

Edinburgh, Franklin and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools are raising the cost of lunch by 10 cents next year, and breakfast prices at Edinburgh and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson will go up 5 cents. Center Grove, Clark-Pleasant and Greenwood schools haven’t decided what their lunch prices will be next school year.

Department of Agriculture wants school districts to ensure they’re bringing in enough money to pay their cafeteria workers and purchase food.

Schools are required to collect as much money for students who pay the full price of lunch as they do for students who receive free lunches.

That money comes from families as well as the USDA.

Lunch money is what funds schools’ meal programs, but school officials are concerned some families won’t be able to afford a higher cost. Most schools won’t have to raise their prices more than about 10 cents, but that cost can add up for families with several children, Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson Superintendent Matt Prusiecki and Franklin food service director Jill Overton said.

“Our intention is not to make a profit, other than (for) our food service program to be self-sufficient,” Prusiecki said.

School districts get money from the department of agriculture for school lunches. For each lunch, schools get between 27 cents and $2.86 for the full-price, reduced-price and free lunches they serve. That money, along with the money students pay for meals, pays for food and the salaries of cafeteria workers, Overton and Clark-Pleasant food service director Kim Combs said.

Schools receive $2.86 for students receiving free meals, but most schools currently charge less than that to students paying the full price for their meals. The federal department wants schools to narrow the gap between the amount they receive from students for full meals and the amount they’re compensated for free meals.

The department of agriculture eventually wants all schools charging students who aren’t on the free and reduced-price lunch program $2.59 for meals. That, along with the 27 cents schools receive from the department for students paying full price for lunch, would equal the amount that schools receive for students eating free meals.

Schools don’t have to raise the regular price of lunch to the $2.59-minimum at once. They can use a formula that factors in the rate of inflation along with a 2 percent increase to raise the price gradually each year. For most local school districts that amounts to about 10 cents, which means a family whose children eat lunch at school would pay an additional $18 per child next year.

School officials are concerned that some families, especially those who are close to qualifying for the free and reduced-price lunch program, will have trouble covering the cost.

And if those students start bringing meals from home instead, that means less money to pay for meal programs at schools, Combs said.

“That’s the group that we would lose participation from. They may opt to provide lunch from home if they feel like they can’t afford the higher rate each day,” Combs said.

The change in food prices wouldn’t affect the number of local families who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program. Requirements for that program are based on federal poverty guidelines, not the cost of school lunches, Overton said.

Updated requirements for the free and reduced-price lunch program should be released in June.

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