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School lunches to cost a nickel more
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Effingham County school lunch prices will increase five cents next year in compliance with a federally mandated provision for school systems nationwide.

“We have to make sure that all the funds we receive are properly allocated to the meals,” said School Nutrition Program administrator for Effingham County schools, June Poulsen. “So they did not give us a time frame of when we had to meet that dollar amount; they just said that all districts have to make that progress toward closing the gap.”

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program to establish equity pricing between students who are not eligible for free or reduced lunch prices as they do for those students eligible for free lunches. Therefore, federal funding for free and reduced lunches can no longer be used to subsidize paid meals.

“(The provision is) making us unable to use free and reduced lunch money that produced the meal cheaper than what the actual reimbursement was to offset our other lunch prices,” Superintendent Randy Shearouse told board members at their May 19 meeting. “That’s something that we can no longer do, and we have to develop a plan to address that issue.”

In Effingham County, the Nutritional Services Department determined that the difference in reimbursements between free meals and paid meals was $2.46 and that difference is the minimal amount that the federal government is requiring the average price to adjust to.

“That’s pretty much in line with what the production to prepare that meal costs,” Poulsen said.

Pricing lunches below production cost increases the federal subsidies for higher income students because federal funds aimed at free and reduced lunches are filling the gap between paid lunch costs and federal reimbursements. The intent is for schools to be more autonomous in funding and providing nutritious meals for students.

“That’ll take years and years to close the gap,” Poulsen said. “That’s the least we could do to be compliant without burdening the parents with additional funds for lunch.”

Had the average lunch price in the system been $2.46, no adjustment would be necessary.

There is no timeline given for the gradual increase to the equity price. The school board, as recommended by the Food Services Department, voted to increase lunch prices across the system by the minimum amount required by the federal government, $.05. This increases the price of elementary school lunches from $1.75 to $1.80 and middle and high school lunches from $2 to $2.05. Prices will rise gradually until the cost of a paid lunch reaches production costs of supplying that meal.

“Price increases should be expected to increase over the next few years,” Shearouse said.