Why Are School Meal Prices Increasing?

For the first time in three years, school meal prices will rise in Colchester School District.

Breakfast will now cost $2.00 for full-paying students and will still be free for students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. Lunch will now cost $3.25 for full-paying students in grades K–5 and $3.75 for full-paying students in grades 6–12; lunch will cost $0.40 for students qualifying for reduced-price meals.

Why are meal prices increasing?

Laurie Colgan, the Vermont Department of Education’s child nutrition state director, explains a three-pronged perfect storm of elements:

  1. Per-plate costs, which include food and labor, are increasing, not just here in Colchester but nationally and globally.
  2. New federally mandated changes to school meals not only place stricter emphasis upon fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and lower fat milk, but they also specify increased quantities of specific fruits and vegetables to be served to students.
  3. Federally mandated changes to the school meal pricing structure (known as “paid lunch equity”) are also having a significant impact. (For more information about that, please click here.)

From ABC News, CNBC, and the New York Times to Business Week, Bloomberg, and the Huffington Post, it is clear that the issue of rising global food costs has been an ongoing challenge the world over. And, as NBC News reports, the drought affecting large parts of the nation will compound the issue in the coming months.

At the same time, while the new federally mandated changes to school meals placing stricter emphasis upon fresh fruits and vegetables is good news for health and wellness—and the district’s own wellness initiatives are highly supportive of it—fresh fruits and vegetables come at a higher cost than processed foods. Those costs have to come from somewhere.

The aforementioned paid lunch equity mandate, too, is required by the USDA—participation is not optional.

CSD is not unique in this situation; school food service programs all across the nation face a complex set of challenges. They must account for the nutritional, allergy, and religious considerations in their meal offerings while also complying with federal guidelines and legislation, juggling rising food costs, and trying to entice students to choose healthier options like kale and quinoa over the other, less healthy food choices they often prefer. Because the healthier choices are generally not as familiar to or popular with students, participation could decrease, which would in turn affect the program’s revenue.

What are we doing to address that?

The Colchester School District Vision and Strategic Plan 2012–2017 has a pathway dedicated to wellness, and the district has a multiple-award-winning wellness program. We host nutritious eating campaigns, wellness challenges that emphasize healthy dietary habits, nutritious eating curriculum, and nutritional workshops all emphasizing the importance of healthy eating. We also actively pursue grant funding to support nutrition and wellness; Porters Point School’s In Shape and In Season program is funded by a grant from Fletcher Allen Health Care, and we have also won a farm-to-school grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to support a program at Colchester Middle School. We also host community gardens at Malletts Bay School and Colchester High School, and much of what is grown is used in school menu offerings and in the salad bars.

How can parents help?

Parents can help to address the issue of rising food costs in schools by encouraging students to try fresh foods so that the foods are more regularly purchased and eaten in the schools rather than being discarded. This will help to offset the losses currently incurred by healthier foods not being purchased.

What food service improvements have been made in recent years?

This is the first time in the ten years that Director of Nutrition & Food Services Steve Davis has been on board that there has been a deficit in the food service budget. And despite limited increases in meal prices and with limited financial support from the general budget, CSD’s food service program has instituted a number of improvements in the last several years, including:

What else can you do?

As a reminder, CSD participates in the National School Lunch Program, and we encourage all families to apply for free and reduced-price school meals. We would like to provide meal benefits to as many families as we can. Because income limits have increased and savings is no longer a disqualification, more Vermonters than ever are eligible for food assistance. Did you know that if you receive the VT Earned Income Tax Credit, Reach Up, or SSI, you are financially eligible for 3Squares VT? And if you qualify for 3SquaresVT, your children are eligible for free meals at school. Most foster children are also eligible for free meals regardless of their guardians’ income.

For more information about these programs, you can also visit the Vermont Department of Education’s website for school nutrition programs or 3SquaresVT’s website.

Please click here for the 2012–2013 application form. Completed applications can be sent to:

Cathy Ward
Colchester School District
P.O. Box 27
Colchester, VT 05446-0027

We all want the same thing: excellent, affordable nutrition in our schools. We are always working to address these complex and often shifting challenges, and we welcome your ideas.

For more information about CSD’s food service program, please e-mail Steve Davis or call him at (802) 264-5706.

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