School officials wary of rising food prices

Klint Willert has seen the news about rising food prices, and he's concerned about what that means for low-income families.

Willert, superintendent of the Marshall Public Schools, doesn't want to make life harder for families that are already struggling by raising school lunch prices.

Late last month, the United States Department of Agriculture predicted food prices will increase three to four percent this year. Meat is expected to jump as much as five percent. That's a substantial jump, but still below the spike of 2008, when food prices increased more than five percent.

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Early signs suggest school districts will have to manage those kinds of increases. The Anoka-Hennepin School District, which leads a buying group that includes about one-third of the districts in the state, this week awarded bids on many food items for next school year.

Patty Duenow, assistant director of Child Nutrition Programs in Anoka-Hennepin, hasn't yet done a detailed analysis of the bids, but sees a two to four percent increase in food prices over last year, with beef rising higher. Bread and milk were not included in the bids.

"We've seen it before," she said. "I just think the current recession, or whatever it is, makes us more sensitive to that. We have more families struggling."

The buying group saves money on food by buying in bulk from manufacturers. Other districts around the state are part of smaller purchasing groups or buy on their own. Some contract with outside management companies to run their food service.

Across the state, districts will have to figure out how to absorb food price increases. One of the options is increasing the price of lunch.

Allison Bradford, director of Child Nutrition Programs in Anoka-Hennepin, said she doesn't yet know whether food prices will affect lunch prices. Officials may be able to find other places in the budget to reduce costs, she said.

Bradford, who puts together the child nutrition budget for the district, said in her 13 years with the district, school officials have raised prices only three times.

For some districts, trying to decide whether to raise prices could be complicated by the new child nutrition law signed by President Obama late last year. It could force some districts to raise the price of meals if they fall too far below the federal reimbursement rate for free and reduced-price lunches.

In Marshall, Willert said raising the cost of lunch to make up for food price hikes is an option, but he hopes the district won't have to take it. Many families are living close to the line in these economic times and he worries about those that are struggling but don't quite qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

"We have families that miss the mark by a handful of dollars," Willert said. "It feels terrible when we have to tell them they don't qualify. That's a terrible conversation to have."

Many school leaders are concerned about families hit so hard by the current economic downturn that they're just hanging on. Those are likely the same families that will be hit hard by rising prices at the grocery store.

Julie Siple reports on hunger and related issues for Minnesota Public Radio News. MPR is a partner in the Hunger-Free Minnesota project, which helps fund her reporting.