For many students, school lunch will likely cost more next year

Punching in lunch code
A second-grader punches in his lunch code at Neill Elementary School in Crystal, Minn. on April 3, 2011. Student lunch costs $2.10 in Robbinsdale Area School District elementary schools.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Thousands of Minnesota school kids are probably going to be paying more for lunch next year. School districts are considering raising prices, in part because of a new federal law that essentially requires them to do so.

Adele Lillie runs the nutrition program in the Robbinsdale Area School District. She's among the food service directors expecting to raise prices next year. The jumps sound small -- 10 cents a meal in Minneapolis and St. Paul, 5 cents in the Eastern Carver County Schools and Marshall Public Schools. Local school boards must approve the changes.

Lillie sits at her computer, typing figures into Excel spreadsheets. Like many school nutrition directors in Minnesota, she's still crunching the numbers.

"It looks like we will need to raise prices, maybe 10-15 cents," she reports.

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But Lillie doesn't want to raise prices. She's worried fewer kids will buy school lunch. And she hears from families in her district who struggle to pay as it is.

"It is heartbreaking when you talk to some of the parents," she said. "They're just trying to make it work."

But the child nutrition law passed last year by Congress leaves little choice. That law --championed by First Lady Michelle Obama-- will raise the nutritional quality of food in schools. But it also pushes up lunch prices.

Battle Creek Elementary salad bar
The lunch line at Battle Creek Elementary in St. Paul is shown in this file photo from March 17, 2010. It's set up to force all students to walk past the salad bar, where they can take as much of any item as they want.
MPR file photo/Tom Weber

Here's how it works.

The federal government gives schools about $2.70 a meal to cover children on free and reduced-price lunch. But some districts charge paying students less than that -- like Robbinsdale, where elementary students pay $2.10 per meal. Now the federal government is telling schools that if they charge less than the reimbursement rate, they have to gradually raise prices.

There are districts that charge higher prices. They won't be affected.

Margo Wootan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, lobbied for the provision. She thinks it fixes a problem.

"Money that's meant to go for healthy food for low-income kids is being diverted to other purposes, to subsidize middle- and upper-income kids," Wootan said. "Then the schools don't have enough money to provide healthy food."

Wootan says if schools raise lunch prices, there will be more money for vegetables and whole grains.

Adele Lillie
Adele Lillie is the child nutrition program director for the Robbinsdale Area Schools. She expects to recommend a small increase in school lunch prices for next year to comply with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

But Marshall Schools Superintendent Klint Willert is concerned about how a more expensive lunch will affect families in his area.

Willert, whose school district is in southern Minnesota, says even small increases can add up for struggling families. His district expects to raise the cost of lunch both to comply with the new law -- and because of higher food prices.

You might think kids are all set at school. Either they qualify for help, or they can afford lunch. Not so, says Willert.

"I think about families that are very close on the edge, and I hate the fact that they have to be put in some very difficult positions to make some hard decisions for their families."

Willert is talking about a group of families that many school nutrition directors worry about.

Back in one of Lillie's schools in the Robbinsdale district, first graders pass through the lunch line at Neill Elementary. They take meat and vegetables, but most everyone eats their popsicle first.

Lillie says there are families who just miss qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Families of four can make no more than about $41,000 a year. She says some miss qualifying by just $10.00 a month.

There's no data, so it's hard to say how many families are in this position. It could be just a handful in each district, or far more. But, while Lillie strongly supports healthy food in schools, she worries about those families.

She doesn't expect a 10-cent increase will push them over the edge. Still, she doesn't want to keep raising prices. Some districts could feel pressure to do that, especially if food and gas prices continue to increase.

"I can see it, you know, gradually climbing for a while," Lillie said. "I know all of us will keep it as level as we can."

Advocates of the requirement in the new child nutrition law say raising the cost of lunch gradually over a few years will be good news. It'll bring in more money so districts can afford to serve more nutritious food, and maybe districts will be able to offer more assistance to the families who are struggling.