Long before students return to class in September, school district officials across the Capital Region are calculating how to serve healthy, affordable lunches in light of rising costs.
School districts are also being handed more stringent requirements to give children highly nutritious lunches, many at a free or reduced rate. School food service managers are now facing the challenge of keeping children well-fed at rock bottom prices.
“There’s tremendous pressure on myself and my colleagues, and that’s not going away,” said J.W. Gayle, Albany City School District’s food service director. “It’s a constant battle to keep up with the costs.”
The Albany district employs about 100 people in food services, with 40 percent part time. About 68 percent of district students receive free or reduced lunch rates.
Although the district’s lunch prices will remain $1.50 for elementary students, and $1.75 for middle school and high school students, those prices rose in 2007 by 25 cents and 50 cents, respectively. Gayle said even that hike didn’t make it easy to balance the costs and expenses, and he anticipates prices rising again over the next few years.
“A lot of it on the expense side for us is the cost to pay health benefits to staff, and to provide nominal raises for them,” Gayle said.
Across New York state, an average of 60 percent of children receive school lunch at a reduced price or at no cost at all. Families apply for the designation through their school district and must meet income eligibility guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, based on the number of people in the household and the annual income.
Children in a family of four with parents earning less than $27,560 of combined income annually qualify for free lunch; children from a family of four with annual earnings less than $39,220 qualify for reduced lunch rates.
The Department of Agriculture sets a non-negotiable 25 cents per meal price that districts can charge for reduced lunches. This rate dates back decades, and, according to New York state officials, is not expected to change any time soon.
In return, districts are reimbursed under fixed rates to help recoup the cost of offering low- or no-cost lunches, but those reimbursements no longer balance out the loss in revenues. “The reimbursements barely cover the costs of meals, and with new mandates for healthy foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, districts are feeling the pinch,” said Sandy Sheedy, coordinator for the Child Nutrition Reimbursement Unit of the New York State Education Department.
“Districts are being told they can’t use canned fruit with added sugar, for example, but they’re not being given funds to buy and offer healthier alternatives. To maintain their bottom line, they may need to increase charges for the full-price meals.”
School food service programs are required to be self-supporting and not rely on any general funds from district operating budgets to stay in business. At the same time, the Education Department continues to encourage districts to heavily promote the free and reduced price meal policy. “We need schools to push these meals, because they’re far more healthy than what children bring from home, or if they bring no lunch at all,” Sheedy said.
Lunch prices increase
Costs to buy school lunch at two grade levels at Shenendehowa Central Schools will rise this year, with the Board of Education due to authorize the increases later this month. Lunch prices will remain $2 at the elementary level; middle school lunches will increase 15 cents to $2.25, and high school lunches will increase 25 cents to $2.50.
School Superintendent Dr. L. Oliver Robinson cited factors, including the cost of food and the increase in the minimum wage scale, for the price changes. “We’re compelled to adjust prices just to break even,” Robinson said. “Once upon a time, the goal was to see a bit of a profit in the [school lunch] program, but even at these prices, it will still be a struggle to make ends meet.”
About 8 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunches, and Robinson said many students buy a la carte menu items rather than full lunches. “We have to provide nutritious alternatives for a la carte purchases as well as meal packages, and the cost of doing this is spiralling upward,” Robinson said.
At Ballston Spa Central School, a price increase for school lunch was approved by the Board of Education in July. Elementary school lunches went up to $1.75 from $1.50, and secondary school price rose from $1.75 to $2.
Assistant Superintendent Brian Sirianni said about 23 percent of district students in grades kindergarten through 12 receive free or reduced lunches, but it’s difficult to track the percentage of older students. “For kids at higher grade levels, there’s apprehension about being in a special category, so many of the kids who qualify don’t apply,” Sirianni said.
Sirianni said the lunch prices have been most significantly affected by new mandates for nutritious foods, but they remain a good meal at a fair price. “You can’t give everybody chicken nuggets anymore; it’s expensive to eat well,” Sirianni said. “But think about it, where can you get a lunch for $2? It’s still an affordable choice.”
School lunch prices in the Greater Amsterdam School District will stay the same in the coming school year, at $1 for elementary grades and $1.25 for secondary grade levels.
School Food Service Director Bob Bardin said the district is able to hold the line on prices in part by buying bulk items through New York state agencies. “There are commodities available through the state, and we buy a lot of our staples and canned goods, but it’s still a difficult balancing act to meet nutritional needs without charging more,” Bardin said. “It’s something we have to live with, and no doubt it’s only going to continue to be a concern in years to come.”
In Schenectady city schools, 72 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunches, but the district will not be increasing the rates for regularly priced lunches this school year. Elementary lunch remains $1.45, middle school lunch $1.60, high school lunch is $1.75.
The Schenectady district contracts with a management company to run the food service program and are putting out bids for a new contract this school year.
Spokeswoman Karen Corona said this is the best option for the district to keep the program self-sufficient. “There is no line item in the general budget, so taxpayers aren’t paying for any part of the food service,” Corona said. “We have an extremely high number of students in the free or reduced program; we’re considered to have severe needs. We want every child to have lunch at the lowest cost they can, and it’s something we constantly keep an eye on.”