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Healthier school meals could lead to higher prices

February 06, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Cathy Meldron prepares ham and cheese croissants in the cafeteria kitchen Thursday at North Hagerstown High School.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Washington County Public Schools students could pay up to a dime more for a school lunch beginning in the fall, and cafeteria meals will limit calories and salt to get a head start on federal proposals aimed at serving more healthful food to the nation’s youth.

Washington County Board of Education officials on Tuesday questioned whether students would go for the more healthful meals, or whether they would instead pack their lunches or buy a la carte items.

The meal changes are federal proposals designed to fight obesity and improve health among the nation’s young people.

“No one can say that ensuring that they’re (students) getting more fruits and vegetables and whole grains is a bad thing,” Jeff Proulx, the school system’s supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services, said Thursday.

The planned changes are “about teaching them to eat healthier,” which he said can have future benefits.

“If we can curb childhood obesity rates, we can potentially curb health care (costs) down the line,” Proulx said.

The increase in lunch prices being considered is not, at this point, related to the changes in food offerings.

But those changes could increase the cost of providing meals, officials said.

“There is a potential ... that our food costs will increase with some of these requirements as well. So it may be necessary for us to be raising prices anyhow with some of these new food requirements,” Deputy Schools Superintendent Boyd Michael said at Tuesday’s meeting.

To school systems that prove they are making nutritional improvements, the federal government will eventually provide another per-meal reimbursement. The 6-cent-per-meal reimbursement would be for all meals, not just for those that are free or purchased at a reduced price, according to Proulx and USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel.

During Tuesday’s presentation, Proulx said the federal government wants the average paid price for a school meal to equal the subsidy for a free meal. He told the school board the school system would need to raise its meal plan prices over several years to meet the free-meal subsidy of $2.46.

On Thursday, Daniel said the federal government was not requiring the school system to raise its meal prices, but was suggesting an increase to help pay for increased costs. Studies show that, for years, school systems have not adjusted the prices of their paid meal plans to keep them in line with current costs and anticipated higher future costs.

Other suggestions the federal government made, to help school systems handle the increased costs, are for school districts to band together to lower the cost to each school district and that school districts take full advantage of foods the USDA offers for school meals, Daniel said.

Proulx said that his presentation to the board on Tuesday was based on information available at the time, which included a pricing formula. But, he said, Daniel might be correct and that he is waiting for federal guidance before taking pricing recommendations to the school board for approval.

The public has until April 13 to comment on the federal proposals, Daniel said. After that, the USDA has until July 2012 to publish the final rules on nutritional standards.

Although the proposed nutrition changes are not expected to go into effect until the 2012-13 school year, Proulx said Wednesday that cafeterias here will begin reducing salt content and calories in the next school year. School menus are already on target with proposals to reduce trans fat.

Proulx said he expects that changes to individual meals, such as reducing calories, salt and trans fat, will become requirements.

Figuring the cost

Proulx said Sunday that it’s too early to say if meal prices will go up in the fall. If they do, the price increase would be 5 cents to 10 cents. The most the school system can increase the meal price in any given year is 10 cents.

The federal act includes an equity in school meal pricing requirement because Congress wants to ensure school systems don’t offset the cost of paid meals with federal reimbursement money given to school systems for free and reduced-price meals, Proulx said.

This means the cost of a school meal must equal the federal reimbursement for a free meal, which is $2.46, Proulx said. Currently, meals cost $2.05 for grades six through 12 and $1.80 for students in prekindergarten to grade five, he said.

The amount of the reimbursement increases annually based on the consumer price index, so the gap between meal prices and the subsidy will be a moving target, Proulx said.

Proulx estimated that if the school system separated expenses for paid meals from free and reduced-price meals, it could cover the cost of paid meals without the reimbursement. That’s because the school system has revenue from a la carte sales and from fulfilling outside contracts with nonprofit groups.

The goal for food services is to try to break even, but for the last few years, the department has made a profit, Proulx said. For the 2008-09 school year, food services had a $41,737 profit, he said.


How to comment

The public has until April 13 to comment on the federal proposals for school lunches, which can be found online at www.regulations.gov.

Choose “proposed rule” and type “school lunch” into the keyword box. Then click on “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.”

Comments can be submitted online or by mailing them to Julie Brewer, chief, Policy and Program Development Branch, Child Nutrition Division, Food and Nutrition Service, Department of Agriculture, 3101 Park Center Drive, Room 640, Alexandria, VA 22302-1594.

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