Families will pay more for school meals next year

/ 17 April 2012 / jennifer

Anne Williams, Bemidji Pioneer, April 17, 2012 –

This was not a local decision, but rather one made by the federal government, Marleen Webb, Bemidji School District’s food services coordinator, said of why school lunch prices have increased over the last two years.

The district’s Board of Education voted 4-0 Monday to increase school lunch prices at the elementary, middle school and high school levels. Board members John Pugleasa and Gene Dillon were absent.

Effective next school year, meal prices will increase from $2.25 to $2.35 at the elementary school level, $2.50 to $2.55 at Bemidji Middle School and $2.60 to $2.65 at Bemidji High School.

Breakfast for students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade will continue to remain at $1.50.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a notice to the Minnesota Department of Education directing all school districts that participate in the National School Lunch program to raise the price of school lunches if the current average lunch price is less than $2.51 per meal, according to Chris Leinen, the district’s director of business services.

This year the district’s average school lunch price is $2.45.

In order to give all students and their families an opportunity to afford to pay for school lunches, the district participates in both state and federal food programs.

As a participant in the Minnesota Department of Education’s school nutrition program, students in the district have the opportunity to apply to receive free or reduced-priced meals.

Families who receive meal benefits through this program are chosen based on comparison of their household’s income to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s household income guidelines.

The district can also receive cash subsidies and foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the National School Lunch Program. In return, the district must serve lunches that meet federal requirements and it must offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children.

Roughly 52 percent of students in the district qualify to receive free or reduced-priced meals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets the free and reduced-priced meal rate. Those eligible for the reduced-priced meals pay $.40 for lunch, and the breakfast is free of charge, according to the state department.

The school district typically has had control over how much it charges families who must pay full price for a school lunch, but in recent years the U.S. Department of Agriculture has set guidelines on the minimum a school can district can set for the average school lunch price.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to try to narrow the gap between the free and reduced-priced meal reimbursement rates and the amounts actually charged at the local level,” Leinen said. “It basically says our food prices are as low as we can possibly set them while still being a part of the program.”

The Bemidji School District serves 4,200 lunches and 900 breakfasts daily during the school year.

Since 2007, the price of an elementary school meal has increased by $.60. But Webb said this increase is minimal compared to how food costs have increased over the last five years.

“In the real world, you cannot purchase a well-balanced, nutritious meal for $2.25,” Webb said.

Still, she is concerned about what effect increases in school meal prices will have on families in the district.

“Probably about 90 percent of our constituents live within the middle- to low-income sector of the community,” Webb said. “Just because some people are not eligible to receive free or reduced-priced meals, doesn’t mean they can easily pay for their children to be fed.”