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The price of a school lunch will increase by at least 10 cents in school districts across the region, with additional price hikes to be phased in within the next five years, according to state and local school officials.
Children who buy lunch at public schools across Western North Carolina will face the first of several cost increases this fall, in keeping with a new federal rule released back in February.
For example, in Buncombe County, the price of lunch for elementary students will increase from $2 to $2.10, while the cost of lunch at the middle schools will go from $2.25 to $2.35. In Rutherford County, which has among the highest rates of enrollment in the free and reduced-price lunch program across the 17-county region, the cost of lunch will increase by 25 cents, moving from $1.75 to $2.
Similar increases are planned for the other 17 districts in Western North Carolina.
But the cost increase only applies to students who pay full price for lunch, according to school officials. Students who receive federally subsidized meals will not be affected.
“The federal government is trying to get the students’ purchase price up closer to what the cost of that lunch actually is,” said Jan Blunt, director of the Buncombe County Schools Communications Department. She added that parents will continue to get a good deal, “even after several years when it finally reaches the (USDA-mandated) price point of $2.51.”
“We’re trying to keep it as low as possible,” she said. “We’ll be taking up the price at the slowest possible rate,” adding ten cents per year to the price self-paying students in Buncombe are charged for the next five years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sets school lunch prices across the country, aims to ensure that school food-service operations collect sufficient funds for lunches served to students not eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
The department provides funding for free and reduced-price meals served to qualifying students at public schools nationwide. This school year, the USDA will reimburse school meal programs $2.86 per meal for each child who qualifies for free lunch.
The USDA said school meal programs may meet the new national requirement either through the prices charged for self-paid students’ lunches or through other sources such as sales of a la carte food items in school cafeterias.
“What people have to realize is that the cost of providing a lunch has been rising,” Blunt said, even as the price students pay has remained stable.
Students getting free, reduced-price meals increasing
Meanwhile, the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals in Western North Carolina has increased over the past decade, according to school officials.
For instance, 55 percent of Buncombe County students now receive free and reduced-priced lunch, according to figures from Buncombe County Schools’ Child Nutrition Services. That number has grown from 32 percent in 2002, with similar increases observed in school districts across Western North Carolina.
Ben Matthews, director of the Division of School Support for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, attributes the trend to a weak economy, with the cost of food, fuel and other commodities rising.
“The increasing percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch is due to reduced employment across the state,” Matthews said. “Food costs are increasing. Fuel costs have increased. We anticipate that we will continue to have increases over time.”
“We have worked with the districts to make this as painless as possible,” Matthews added. “We know folks are struggling, especially those who are right on the edge of poverty.”
For families who don’t quite qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, he noted, an increase in the price of a meal may be seen as a strain.
“We’ve very empathetic about that,” he said, noting that food-stressed families should be encouraged to seek help from area food pantries such as Manna FoodBank.
Free breakfasts will be offered to all students at many regional school districts this fall as well.
But Lynette Vaughn-Hensley, director of Buncombe County Schools’ Child Nutrition Services, argues that the initial increase this fall shouldn’t break anyone’s budget.
“Ten cents is not that much,” she told the Buncombe School Board during its March meeting.
Blunt concurred, pointing out that a 10-cent increase, taken over a 180-day school year, adds up to just $18 per year.
For his part, Woody Fender, father of a rising fifth grader at Haw Creek Elementary, said it probably wouldn’t affect the buying behavior of the self-paying students – or their parents.
“To me, this sounds like a sensible way to ease in the change without it being too painful,” he said. “I think some people would have a bigger problem with the whole 50-cent increase” if it came all at once.
Even so, he said, “It would make me feel better if they were trying to serve healthier foods” at the same time.
Susan Lawrence, parent of another fifth-grader at Haw Creek, agreed.
“I just have one kid, so the increase probably will not alter our lunch buying significantly, at least for now,” she said. “But by the time the price gets up to $2.40 or $2.50, I’m sure we’ll end up packing lunch more.”
Information on what your child will pay for a meal at lunchrooms across the 17-county region.