Board Raises School Meal Prices, Considers Leaving Federal Program

The Derry School Board has voted, reluctantly, to add 10 cents to the price of each meal served across the district, while vowing to investigate withdrawing from the Federal lunch program for 2016-17.

The board responded to a presentation by Business Administrator Jane Simard at its May 26 meeting in which Simard explained the rationale behind the raise and the consequences if it isn’t done.

Simard said the Federal government, which administers the Free and Reduced Lunch program, has been trying for a while to get districts to bring the price charged to paying customers up to the same amount the Feds reimburse districts for in the “free” and “reduced price” lunches in the Free and Reduced program.

For compliance with the new, stricter Federal lunch guidelines, Simard said, the district receives an additional 6 cents per meal, which adds up and helps Food Service Director Susan Baroskas stay on budget.

The district receives $3.04 reimbursement for every meal eaten by a student on the “free” program. They receive $2.64 reimbursement for students on the “reduced” program. But the district is currently charging $1.30 for breakfast in its elementary and middle schools; $2.40, elementary lunch; and $2.60 for middle school lunch. The Feds want them to close that gap, she said.

“They have a price calculator and they want us to increase our charges by 5 to 10 cents yearly,” Simard told the board.

Simard said the incremental increases are part of a five-year plan from the Feds.

A 10-cent increase across the board would mean $1.40 for breakfast in middle and elementary schools; $2.50 for elementary lunch; and $2.70 for middle school lunch. There would also be a 10-cent increase for any adult buying a school lunch, she said.

Simard said the district has three options: “You can approve the increase and have the parents pay the new price, you can approve the increase and cover the difference through the district budget, or the district can withdraw from the program.”

Board member Ken Linehan asked the consequences of opting out.

Simard said there would be consequences, possibly a fine. Some districts do a partial opt-out, dropping Free and Reduced on their high school levels. “But we’re in it because we want that 6 cents per meal,” she said.

Simard said it’s a lot of work to stay in compliance with the updated guidelines and if Baroskas comes up short on one component, even by an ounce, she has to redo her menu.

The stricter guidelines also stifle her cooks from making some meals they know Derry kids like. “They love to make homemade soup and the children like it,” she said of her lunch ladies. “But they can’t make it unless they have all the components.”

Simard knows Baroskas and her staff and said they would still serve healthy food without the Federal guidelines. “It wouldn’t be a lot of fried food,” she said.

Simard encouraged the board to look at withdrawal from the program for 2016-17, and Linehan said, “Why don’t we withdraw now? Are we already obligated?”

Baroskas has already done the paperwork, Simard said.

Superintendent Laura Nelson recommended waiting another year and using that year for study. “We haven’t seen the paperwork, or a cost-benefit analysis,” she said. “Let’s have Jane and Susan come back next fall and we can make a more informed decision.”

The board voted 6-0 to approve the increase.

On a brighter note, Simard reported that the outstanding balances for unpaid school lunches are down from last year, since the board adopted a “no charge beyond $5” policy at that time. “That is going better,” Simard said, noting that the unpaid balances are less than $2,000.