Education

Wake County may raise school meal prices by 25 cents

From left, fourth graders Kendall White, Mackenzie Stutts, and Lana Hart have lunch together at Partnership Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, April 21, 2016.
From left, fourth graders Kendall White, Mackenzie Stutts, and Lana Hart have lunch together at Partnership Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, April 21, 2016. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Wake County school administrators are proposing a 25-cent increase in breakfast and lunch prices for the 2016-17 school year.

That means Wake County parents could pay $45 more per year for their children’s school breakfasts and the same additional amount for their lunches in what would be the school district’s first price increase since 2010. Multiple reasons are cited for the possible increase, including rising production and labor costs, fewer students buying food because of new federal nutritional standards and federal mandates over meal pricing.

Wake is subject to a federal “paid lunch equity” requirement to make sure that the price of paid meals is close to the amount the district gets reimbursed for free and reduced-price meals.

“We’re a federally funded program,” said Brittanie Benge, director of operations for the Wake County school system’s child nutrition services program. “In order to receive our funds we have to adhere to regulations.”

Breakfast could rise to $1.25 in elementary schools and $1.50 in middle and high schools. Lunch could increase to $2.25 in elementary schools and $2.50 in middle and high schools.

There would be no change in the price for reduced-priced meals.

David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, said the school board could be asked to vote on the price increase in May.

Benge said Wake serves an average of 22,000 breakfasts and 64,000 lunches a day. Those figures don’t include individual items students might buy in lieu of full meals or food to supplement what they bring from home.

Wake is facing the same challenge that many school systems around the nation have encountered since the federal school nutrition program was revised in 2010, according to Lynn Harvey, school nutrition services chief at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The 2010 overhaul promoted by the Obama administration raised nutrition standards for school meals and snacks. Foods are required to have less sodium, calories and fat, and all grains must be whole grains. The law also set the requirement for price equity.

In testimony before Congress in June, Harvey said the changes were well-intended but more food has been going to waste as students say the new items are unpalatable. For instance, she said students used to eating fluffy biscuits weren’t buying the dense whole-grain biscuits.

“Everyone wants to serve the most nutritious meals to students,” Harvey said in an interview. “The challenge as a culture is how do we make dietary changes so abruptly. In the South, we’re gradually adjusting to whole grains.”

Harvey told Congress that the new requirements have led to a 5-percent drop in the number of North Carolina students eating school meals. This drop in meal revenue also coincides with rising costs to prepare the new foods and a statewide $20 million drop in snack revenue.

Harvey said changes such as a temporary federal waiver allowing North Carolina schools to serve only 50-percent whole grains has helped improve the situation.

But in the meantime, Harvey said many school systems have been forced to raise prices.

For this school year, Durham raised lunch prices 40 cents in elementary schools and 25 cents in middle and high schools. Johnston County raised lunch prices in elementary and middle school by 5 cents. Orange County meal prices have gone up about 10 cents per year over the past three years.

Harvey said the increases create a burden on families who are barely getting by but who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

“For the families of the working poor, it’s a struggle for them to pay the increase in lunch prices,” Harvey said.

Last Thursday, most students who were eating the school lunches served at Partnership Elementary School in Raleigh were picking between a chicken sandwich or beef tacos with salsa as their entree. The meat and cheese were served in a cup with tortilla chips on the side.

But Abigail Ramsey, a fourth-grader at Partnership, was, as usual, eating a meal she brought from home. Abigail celebrated her 10th birthday with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pears and a bag of pretzels.

“I don’t want to waste money,” Abigail said. “Also I’ve been told by the other kids that the food doesn’t taste that good.”

Abigail’s father, Jeff, who was volunteering at Partnership last week, said it’s cheaper for his four kids to bring their own lunches.

But Benge said things are improving in Wake as the district conducts food taste tests to find what students like.

“Our students are our customers so we’re making sure that they’re accepting our products,” Benge said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

School lunch prices

The Wake County school system might raise prices for student breakfasts and lunches by 25 cents for the 2016-17 school year. Here are the 2015-16 prices for area school systems.

District

Elementary

Middle

High

Chapel Hill-Carrboro

$2.75

$3

$3

Durham

$2.75

$2.75

$2.75

Johnston

$2.20

$2.20

$2.30

Orange

$2.20

$2.70

$2.70

Wake

$2

$2.25

$2.25

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