School lunch prices rise

SARANAC LAKE – A federal mandate will increase the price of lunch and breakfast for Saranac Lake Central School District students, and students in many districts across the country, this coming school year.

The Saranac Lake school board voted unanimously Wednesday to raise the price of lunch from $2.30 to $2.40. The cost of breakfast will also increase from $1.25 to $1.30.

School officials said the price hikes were mandated by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which has been phased in over the last few years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has been pushed by First Lady Michelle Obama.

One of the regulations involves equity in school meal pricing, according to Ruth Pino, the district’s food service director. She said school districts are required to charge students for paid meals at a price that is on average equal to the difference between the federal reimbursement they get for free meals and the cost of paid meals.

Superintendent Diane Fox said the mandate was implemented because the federal government found it was indirectly subsidizing paid meals.

“What they were finding is that districts were using their reimbursement money for the free and reduced lunch (program) to actually pay for the full-pay students, part of their meals also, because the gap was so wide between the actual cost of the meal and what students were paying,” said school Superintendent Diane Fox. “The long and short of it is, if you charge less than $2.59 for your paid lunches in 2012-13, you have to adjust your average price.”

Pino said she determined what the new lunch prices will be for Saranac Lake schools using a formula on the USDA website.

“Right now our lunch is $2.30,” she said. “When I did the formula it came to $2.38 per lunch. Dan (Bower, the district’s assistant superintendent for business) and I had a discussion about bringing the price to $2.40. We could legally round it down to $2.35, but that will always keep us below the curve. What’s going to end up happening is if we keep rounding down is at one point we’re not going to have the option and we’re going to have to go up a lot more. Our discussion was to raise the lunch price from $2.30 to $2.40.”

Fox said the mandate is an effort to provide healthier choices for student meals.

“They’re trying to increase (the price) so that what they reimburse and what a student who does not receive (a free meal) pays matchup, which then allows for more variety of food and better food choices,” she said. “They’re trying to, back-door, up the quality of the program overall.”

Board member Katie Fischer said she had contacted neighboring school districts several years ago to find out what they were charging for lunches and learned Saranac Lake was one of the highest. She asked Pino what other districts are charging now.

“I don’t know what they’re paying,” Pino said. “They will all be getting the same memo, so they’ll all have to do the same. They might have to raise (their lunch prices).”

This is the second phase of implementation of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The first phase, which took effect at the start of this past school year, required districts to provide more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and only fat-free or low-fat milk while reducing saturated and trans fats and sodium. The total number of calories a student can eat is also being capped in an effort to ensure proper portion size and reduce childhood obesity.

In the North Country and across the U.S., however, some of the changes have sparked controversy. Some students, parents and politicians have complained that the portion limits are too small, causing students to bring food from home that may not be as healthy as what the schools are serving. With less students buying school lunches, some school districts have seen a drop in lunch revenue.

Earlier this month, the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school board, near Albany, voted to leave the National School Lunch Program. It’s lunch program ended the 2012-13 school year $100,000 in the red, according to a press release on the district’s website.

“Students complained of being hungry with these lunches and the district lost money,” Superintendent Chris Abdoo wrote in the release. “I’m confident we can do better on our own next year.”

Roughly 200 schools across the country have opted out of the federal lunch requirements, but that also means they will no longer get federal subsidies for school lunches.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or