School meal fees will stay the same

Food will cost School District 51 more next year, but parents and students won’t pay the difference with a meal-price increase.

School breakfast prices will remain at $1.25 for elementary students and $1.35 for middle and high school students in 2011–12. Lunch prices will stay at $2 in elementary, $2.50 for middle school students and $2.75 for high school students.

The cost of providing that food, however, will increase 2.8 percent, or $65,353, next year.

Food prices rose “across the board” because of higher fuel prices, District 51 Food Services Director Dan Sharp said. The same is true for plastic trays and dinnerware, which are used on days when a school is short-staffed and doesn’t have extra time to wash dishes.

The district has three local food vendors who don’t have to tangle with large fuel costs, Sharp said. But most local vendors charge about the same price for food as a national vendor. Still, he’s interested in buying more food closer to home for the freshness.

“We’ll definitely hand out business cards at farmers markets this summer,” Sharp said.

Sharp expects the elevated cost of transporting goods to increase food prices throughout the next school year. Instead of increasing meal prices, the district plans to absorb the added cost through efficiencies.

Sharp said the district has worked to “right size” the food-service staff through attrition and has decreased employee hours since 2007. Food costs began rising sharply in the early 2000s, which put food service sometimes as much as $950,000 over budget, Sharp said.

“Fortunately, because we’ve implemented a lot of changes, we expect we will be hitting break-even for the first time in four years this year,” he said.

District 51 raised breakfast and lunch prices in three of the past five years to get prices closer to covering the entire cost of providing a meal, Sharp said. So far, meal revenue still don’t match meal expenses, he said.

Federal reimbursement for free lunch or breakfast is also not enough to cover the true price of a meal, but it’s closer, coming in a few pennies ahead of what the district charges.

“In essence, it’s ironic that as much complaining as there is about, ‘Why are we giving away free meals?’ the reimbursement rates in many school districts are subsidizing full-pay students,” Sharp said.


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