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School lunch prices to increase

Chew on this, parents: Your child's school meals will cost more this fall.

South Washington County Schools will increase lunch prices by 30 cents across all grades. Administrators said the price hike is a response to higher food costs, anticipated wage increases and the need to bulk up a meager reserve fund.

Increases for the 2016-17 school year break down this way:

• Elementary school: $2.30 to $2.60

• Middle school: $2.60 to $2.90

• High school: $2.65 to $2.95

Nutrition Services Director Wendy Tracy told the District 833 School Board last month that the department faces $600,000 in increased expenses next year. She said the lunch price increase is necessary in order to maintain the quality of meals that are expected, and the department tries to weigh its budget needs against a desire to make it financially reasonable for families.

"It's a difficult balance and we know that," she said.

For some, the price increase — and the possibility of another increase in 2017-18 — was barely palatable.

School Board member Katie Schwartz said while she understands the need to raise the cost, it will be a big increase to some multi-student families, especially after a similar increase this past year.

"I just think 30 cents after 30 cents (this year) is just way too much of an increase. It's just a lot over the course of two years," Schwartz said during a discussion last month. She joined other board members in supporting the increase May 26, noting that parents will have more time to plan for next year's increase.

There is growing participation in the school breakfast and lunch program, but food prices are expected to increase by 4 percent and a new employee contract likely will include wage and benefit increases.

The department cut expenses by $100,000 this year, but it also wants to shore up a reserve fund that has declined from $1.85 million in 2011 to $80,557 this year. Administrators need to plan for future kitchen equipment replacements.

"We have to have that cushion because we don't know when things are going to take place," she said.

The meal price increase is estimated to generate an additional $411,000 in revenue next year. The tentative dime-per-meal increase for 2017-18 would bring in another $141,000.

Like Community Education, the Nutrition Services budget is separate from the district's general fund. School Board Chairman Ron Kath said those two budgets must be self-sufficient.

"Truly as costs go up we have to pass that pricing along," Kath said.

The free or reduced-price lunch program is available to families who qualify, and an angel fund covers meal prices for kids who can't pay. No student will ever be denied a meal, Tracy said.

Among comparative districts, South Washington County Schools has a low elementary lunch price. Its middle school and high school lunch costs fall in the middle of the pack. A majority of area school districts are planning to increase lunch prices a minimum of 10 cents next year, Tracy noted.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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