New School Food Rules Raise Prices

Heather Faulhefer, The Evening Sun, Hanover, Pa.

Posted June 30, 2012

Part of Shawn Harlacher's job next year will involve watching vegetables.

South Western School District's director of food and nutrition services said new federal regulations will require kids to eat more veggies at school next year -- or at least purchase them.

Normal school lunches typically required three components, and students could choose whether one of those components was a vegetable, Harlacher told the South Western school board Wednesday.

But new guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture taking effect in the 2012-13 school year require one of the meal components to be a vegetable, whether the student wants it or not, Harlacher said.

If a student decides not to include a vegetable component, it is no longer considered a standard meal, and the student pays a separate cost for each item on their tray, which can come with a higher price tag when sold individually.

"The challenge is to watch the vegetables and to get students to eat them and not throw them away," Harlacher said.

It's one of several federal regulation changes coming next year. Other changes include offering more whole grain foods, making all flavored milk nonfat and revisions of calorie and sodium content.

And with the content changes comes a price change, as well. South Western is raising meal prices for 2012-13, also to comply with a federal requirement.

All regular meal prices -- for breakfast and lunch- will see a 5 cent increase, Harlacher told the school board.

Breakfast will cost $1.10 at the elementary level and $1.20 at the intermediate and high school level. Lunch will move up to $1.85 at the elementary schools and $2.05 at the intermediate and high school.

Many school districts will be gradually increasing their lunch prices to comply with a provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed by President Barack Obama at the end of 2010.

Schools are required to gradually move closer to the federal target of charging at least $2.46 per meal -- the average lunch price charged by schools based on a national government survey.

The government found that while school districts get a $2.72 reimbursement for each free meal given to qualified students, most schools charge significantly less than that for paid meals and charge less than the cost of making them.

And federal officials believe some schools were offsetting the difference between the price and the actual cost by using their federal reimbursement for the free meals given to economically disadvantaged students through the National School Lunch program.

Federal officials have said there is no deadline for reaching the $2.46 target and suggested districts make the change gradually.

But Harlacher believes even a slight change of price might have led to fewer students purchasing meals this year.

The food service budget saw a drop in revenue, which he attributed in part to less regularly priced lunches sold. The district raised its meal prices by ten cents for the 2011-12 school year.

While there were more students who qualified for free or reduced price meals -- 25 percent of the district compared to 23 percent -- the number of paid lunches purchased dropped.

But the expenses were also lower than previous years, Harlacher said.

"We're watching what we're buying, ordering properly and minimizing waste," he said.

To lower expenses, the food services and nutrition department will not fill a vacant part-time dishwasher position with a new employee, moving a high school staff member into the position instead.

©2012 The Evening Sun (Hanover, Pa.)

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