School lunch prices going up

Whenever I do a Google news search about school lunch, I find a virtual avalanche of articles about increases in school lunch prices. Well, when I go to the grocery store, I have noticed that food prices are creeping up, little by little. I’ve wondered about school districts and if they might be forced to pass on these costs to students.

But there’s more to it than food being more expensive in general. According to an article in the North Shore Sun, as of July 1st “many school districts to increase full-cost or ‘paid’ lunches by 5 or 10 cents per meal, depending on the district, this school year. Some local districts will increase their meal prices by as much as 25 cents.”

Take a look what is happening across the country:

In this sampling of articles, price increases fluctuated from just $0.05 to $0.50 per lunch. I think a five cent increase is no big deal, but too much more than that is challenging for families, especially if they have more than one child. School districts rely on the paying kids to help off-set the costs of the other kids. But I don’t think a lot of people know that when a child purchases school lunch for $2.35 or $2.05 or whatever it is in your area, the USDA chips in some additional money for the paid lunch. The USDA reimburses $0.26 per paid lunch (reference for 2010-2011 school year). So when a kid decides not to buy lunch, that school loses more than just that particular child’s money. It’s no wonder schools want kids to eat the lunch provided by the school.

With these price increases, some parents will have to start packing lunch. I’ll be frank and say a lot of parents don’t know what to put in a lunch. Lots of times I’m flummoxed by what to pack in the morning for my son, but sending a banana and some flavored water (something I saw in a lunch bag) is not better than a school lunch.

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21 thoughts on “School lunch prices going up

  1. I might sound like the devils advocate here, but what do you expect? I mean the price of food is increasing and there is no way that schools can afford to cover the costs without raising the prices. I also think that part of the problem is that at a majority of schools there is a large percentage that qualify for “free” lunches, but those lunches are NOT free, the free lunches price has to be covered by someone and in this case the lunch prices for others is increasing.

    1. Of course. School districts don’t live in a vacuum. It’s just that for some families this could be significant.

  2. Apart from the increasing cost of food, labor and gas, all of which drive higher paid lunch prices, there is another reason why so many districts are raising the paid meal price this year. Part of the Healthy Hunger Free Schools Act is a requirement that the paid price not be lower than the government reimbursement for a free meal; schools which have maintained a low paid price, so that families who just missed the cutoff for eligibility for free/reduced, but who are still financially challenged, would be able to afford to pay for their kids’ lunches, will now be required to start raising the price by 10 cents a year until it equals the reimbursement rate. For 2011-12, the reimbursement for a free lunch will be $2.77. So, for example, a district might have been charging just $1.50 or $2 for a paid lunch, in an effort to make the meal affordable for families not qualified for free/reduced; those districts are now required to start raising their paid price.

    The thinking behind this was that if the paid price is lower than what the cafeteria receives for a free meal, then really the free meal reimbursement ends up subsidizing the paid meal customers. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. In some areas, it is likely that either paid participation will decrease, or else in districts which have a policy of feeding the kids even if they have no money to pay and are not qualified for free/reduced, the deficit caused by these unpaid meals will grow if more kids come to school with insufficient or no money to pay for their meal.

    1. Thank you Dana — of course as usual I needed your insight to know exactly what was going on. So appreciated as usual!

  3. Clicked on the first one about healthier food with the price increase. So sad to see the second comment: it blames the increase on the kids not eating the healthier foods and creating waste.

    Direct quote from comment: “I for one witnessed numerous time last year, lunches(not even touched)thrown in to the garbage pails on the way back to the table and this was the more healthier lunch that they did this to.You never once seen chicken nuggets,pizza,chicken patties and any of the other finger foods that were served getting thrown in the garbage”

    1. Thanks for the comment! Any change in menu needs to be accompanied with education, even taste testing. Changing horses mid-stream with kids is not going to go over well. I know this because I have a two year old! 🙂

  4. I know I got $2 in elementary school (86-91 ish) and then $3 after that (92-99)… I think that either you charge what it costs or we need a serious change in the nature of the status quo and it should be considered a part of what is provided by the public schooling system and not charge anything…

    For my son who goes to private school (prek),we pay $4.25 for each hot lunch.

  5. Something is missing here – nutrition.  Regardless of the cost, the food being served is beyond bad.  Children of all ages need good food.  Without that, they cannot function properly, they can’t concentrate, everything suffers and the hidden and long term cost make the current debt limit problem look like a walk in the park.  Some children are old enough that they may be beyond help in the short term but the elementary school children must be dealt with first.  Education, education, education!  Our shortsightedness is deplorable. 

  6. Admittedly, I did not read the linked articles, but would like to chime in with what’s going on in our house and district.  This year I will have 2 girls in elementary school, K and 5.  Their lunch would cost me $1.50, up from $1.25 last year.  Last year, mid fall our food services completely changed, and it “looked” healthier, more veggies, fewer fries and desserts, less frying more baking, but I never saw the ingredients lists.  However, my girls won’t go near the new lunch.  Neither will many of the kids, this has got to be hurting the food services as the group of kids getting lunch seems to have shifted to be predominantly kids on free/reduced.

    As for what we pack, I know it could be better, but they are eating it.  We are learning about packing healthier lunches together as a family.

    1. I wonder if there is anything the school could do to get kids excited about the new lunches? Thanks for sharing!

  7. Am I the only person who thinks these prices are highway robbery for the families – considering the quality of the food?  For that money, you can prepare a healthy breakfast and lunch for a small family.  I understand (but still have mixed feelings) about the need to provide food for those who have none or can’t afford any, but do I want to subsidize this buy buying inscrutables or some of the other junk we’ve witnessed at your school or others (I’m in LAUSD land).  I’d rather just pay higher taxes for healthy food and have my own family make separate food choices as we can afford it.

    1. I know when I paid $3 per day for what I ate that I really felt that when I withdrew the money from my checking account. I know now there is so much more I could have done with it!! 🙂

    2. Highway robbery?  Please learn a  little more about the financial side of school food and rethink that comment!   For example, say that you as a full price parent, spend $2 on your elementary child’s school lunch this fall.  The district will receive an additional 27 cents or so in reimbursement from the government.  Of that, about one dollar is actually available for food.  The rest goes for staff, utilities, equipment, supplies, computers and software (to keep track of the meals so they qualify for the federal reimbursment, and so they can properly account for the money) and supports the processing of free/reduced meal applications.   Of that dollar, the school first needs to cover the cost of the carton of milk.  OK, now, can you really make 20 or so different healthy lunches (a typical five week rotation for a school district) for somewhere around 75 to 85 cents for food?   A lot of people could plan one meal–but 20, keeping  in mind allergies, religious preferences, equipment limitations and —  foremost–the nutritional requirements?   It’s not easy.

      1. And another thing, here’s a quote from your post:   “I understand (but still have mixed feelings) about the need to provide food for those who have none or can’t afford any.”

        Mixed feelings?  Would you prefer that children go hungry?

        1. Yes, ‘mixed feelings.’  Every article one reads in the paper points to the kind of food served as just the kind that causes diabetes, obesity, etc.  Poor folks are regularly criticized for eating ‘fast food.’  When we call fast food, school food, suddenly the character changes?  If it’s awful, then it’s awful.  Folks with money get good food (our private schools often get catering from Whole Foods or places like it), and poor people get this?

  8. FINALLY, I successfully changed my Disqus display name from KimFedUpWithLunch to kimmaroo!  YAY!!!

    Mrs. Q, this is slightly off-topic but still relevant, I think.  I just finished reading a book called “Three Little Words” by Ashley Rhodes-Courter. It’s a childhood memoir written by a young woman who spent over 9 years in the foster care system.  She wrote briefly about how important free school breakfasts and lunches were to her, especially during a period when she lived with a particular foster parent who withheld food from her (and other foster children) as punishment for “misbehaving.”  This is an excerpt from Chapter Six:

    “……Foster kids, along with others who qualified, received two meals a day at school.  I loved the breakfasts with pancakes, scrambled eggs, little bottles of juice, and sausage links.  When they served grilled cheese or chicken sandwiches for lunch, I would cadge extras from the children who hardly ever cleaned their plates.  Knowing that we ate at school, Mrs. Moss scrimped even more at home often serving only thin sandwiches for supper.”

    Ashley is a child advocate and public speaker.  Mrs. Q, would you be interested in inviting her to write a guest post about the role of school meals in the lives of kids in foster care?  If you’re game, I’d be happy to find out how to get in touch with her and then pass that info on to you.

    I highly recommend Ashley’s book, by the way.  If you care even just a little about the welfare of kids, it will touch your heart and open your eyes, and Ashley’s strength and tenacity in overcoming a terrible childhood will amaze you.

    1. Thanks Kim! That’s really interesting about the book — I’d love to read it some time. Can you email me again so I have your email address? Thanks! fedupwithlunchATgmailDOTcom

      1. Just emailed you.  Couldn’t get the contact form to work (I think I kept getting the “garbled word” thingy wrong) so I just sent you a regular email with kimmaroo in the subject line.

  9.  Little bit of a late comment. But. I’m 19, obviously graduated from school and in college now. My school lunch prices weren’t horrible, but when my family was tight on money I felt awful to have to buy it. There was never any time to pack my lunch in the mornings, so I relied on school lunch and it really wasn’t that unhealthy either. I usually ate a good old sandwich and soup or a salad. Perfect lunch. But if I remember right it was about 1.50 or 1.75. That amount adds up a lot each day for 4 straight school years, so to be honest, to help my family save money, I sometimes just didn’t buy lunch and went without to try and do my part. Obviously, it was a silly thing to do, but I can’t help but wonder if there are other students out there like me who deprive themselves because they don’t want to spend their parents money when finances are already tight enough.

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