AUGUSTA — A new federal law requires virtually every school to raise lunch prices this fall, and additional mandates are likely to force prices still higher next year.

School districts that charge on average less than $2.46 per meal must raise the price by at least a nickel this year, and keep increasing it until it reaches that threshold, which itself could increase each year.

“I haven’t heard anybody that’s going to go all the way,” said Walter Beesley of the Child Nutrition Services department at the Maine Department of Education. “What I usually hear is a nickel to 25-cent increases.”

Many school districts in the capital area will charge a nickel more. In those cases, it will cost parents an extra $9 for 180 days of school lunches.

“We’re not anticipating a large increase,” said Barbara Nichols, director of school nutrition for Augusta schools. “In fact, we’re trying to go with the minimum increase. The minimum increase is 5 cents, and so that will be my recommendation, to go with the 5 cents.”

The increase is mandated by the price equity section of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, which became law in December.

The law also will set new nutritional guidelines for the 2012-13 school year to reduce sodium and saturated fat and require more vegetables.

Those new guidelines, being written now, likely will raise costs yet again, Nichols said.

Schools receive a reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each student meal. But even in combination with the money students pay out of pocket for full-price or reduced-price meals, the reimbursements rarely cover the actual cost of food, leaving schools to cover the balance.

In 2010-11, the reimbursement was 26 cents for a lunch served to a student who paid full price; $2.72 for a lunch served to a student who qualified for free meals.

“Most programs around the state of Maine are not breaking even,” Beesley said. “If it’s $2.72 for a free lunch and costing $3 to put a lunch out, you’re losing money.”

The new law requires the price for a paid lunch to cover the gap between the two reimbursement rates in the previous school year, setting the threshold at $2.46 for this year.

Federal officials want to make sure that none of the reimbursement money for free meals is subsidizing students who pay for lunch.

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at: [email protected]