By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — The latest place to be hard hit by rising food and fuel prices?
The school cafeteria.
As costs are driven up by shrinking student populations and hefty fuel surcharges on food deliveries, many county schools are facing increasingly large deficits in their hot lunch programs — prompting several to hike prices this year from seven to 15 percent.
For the parents of the roughly 51 percent of all schoolchildren who eat hot lunch on any given day, those increased prices add up.
“The (school) boards have been briefed that this is seriously a belt-tightening year,” said Greg Burdick, the business manager for the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANeSU). Five of the district’s six schools saw lunch price increases this year. “The boards all know that it’s going to be a tough year for hot lunch and a tough year for our budget.”
Burdick said that he didn’t know if price increases were any steeper this year than they’d been in the past — but he did say that increases weren’t as “spotty” as they had been in previous years, when they typically occurred at just one or two schools a year.
But even increased prices cannot fully “true” the mounting hot lunch program deficits facing some local schools — deficits that could creep as high as an estimated $70,000 at Bristol’s Mount Abraham Union High School. Mount Abe raised school lunch prices 40 cents to $3.
Outside of the ANeSU, other schools in the county have seen prices rise this year as well.
At Middlebury Union High School, lunch prices are up a quarter to $2.25 per meal. Vergennes Union High School saw prices increase from $1.75 to $2.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Students whose families qualify for reduced-price or free lunches are not affected by the price increases; the cost of a reduced-price lunch held steady at 40 cents this year.
Eligibility for reduced price or free lunches is based on a family’s size and income. For example, a family of four qualifies for free lunches if household annual income falls under $27,560 a year, and for the reduced lunch program if the household income is $39,220 or less.
The child nutrition programs offer much-needed assistance for many families with children attending local schools. At Bristol Elementary School, around 46 percent of the school’s 292 students last year qualified for free or reduced lunches. Twenty percent of students at MUHS were eligible last year, as were 22 percent of high school students at Mount Abe.
These numbers are roughly consistent with statewide figures. Of the total lunches served, according to Jo Busha, the director of child nutrition at the Vermont Department of Education, 58 percent are served to students who pay the full price. Ten percent are served at the reduced fare, and 32 percent of students receive free lunches.
And this year, all students who qualify for some form of lunch assistance — both free and reduced rates — will be eligible for free breakfasts at local schools.
With registrations for lunch assistance still trickling in, Busha said that it’s too soon to tell whether or not the school nutrition programs will see higher enrollments this year — though she said it’s possible, considering economic pressures facing families.
“Occasionally we hear sometimes that parents are reluctant to apply because they think that somehow this is drawing money out of the town school district’s coffers,” she said. “That’s not true. It all comes from federal funds. It’s money that Vermont can pull from Washington.”
And because of the way federal funding for these lunch programs falls out, MAUHS school board member Lanny Smith explained, the schools actually receive more money for assisted lunches than they do from students paying the “full” lunch price.
Busha feels strongly school lunches are important components of a school’s offerings — and that the benefits to students far outweigh the costs to school districts.
“Kids who eat school lunch and breakfast have better overall nutrient intakes than kids that each lunch from any other source,” Busha said, including those who choose to bring their lunches from home. “It’s planned to be balanced.”
Other studies, she said, show that the meal program helps low-income families make their money stretch a little further.
“It helps them get through holidays and weekends and suppers,” Busha said.
WEIGHING THE IMPACT
For some families who don’t qualify for relief, the increased lunch prices aren’t cause for concern.
“My kids don’t get the lunch every day, so I don’t feel strapped by the prices,” said Lincoln resident Holly Catlin, who is active in the Lincoln Community School Parent Teacher Organization.
At the Lincoln School, lunch prices went up this year to $2.20 from $1.95, making the hot lunch the most expensive at an elementary school in the ANeSU district. The decision to order a hot lunch has more to do with her children’s eating preferences — “I have a picky eater,” Catlin explained — than with prices, but she acknowledged that her family is in a position where rising lunch prices are not a major concern.
“We’re lucky enough that we’re not strapped so tightly with our budget,” she said.
Phyllis Martin, the parent of two Mount Abe students, feels the same way about paying for breakfast and lunches for her children.
“It’s a stretch for a lot of people to feed their families right now,” Martin said. “I can sympathize with people.”
For her part, though, she feels that the $3 price tag for a student’s hot lunch is fairly reasonable.
“I personally don’t think that $3 is that much to spend on lunch when I think about how much kids spend on energy drinks or a trip to Maplefields in the morning,” Martin said. Plus, she said, the price is much lower than the cost of lunch off campus — for which one of her sons, a senior at the high school, is allowed to leave campus.
“He can go through quite a bit of money in a week if he goes off campus and decides that he’s going to eat at someplace like Cubber’s,” Martin said.
But for other families, Burdick said, the increases — at many schools, an extra 10 or 15 or 40 cents — add up.
“We understand that impact,” Burdick said.
Likewise, the MAUHS school board was “very cognizant” of the strain that increased lunch prices places on some families, Smith said. He said the board had a “lively discussion” before approving the increases.
“It’s never been a question of whether or not to (serve breakfast and lunch),” Smith said, and Smith for one feels strongly that the food service at Mount Abe is excellent.
“I think that the increases were pretty fair,” he said, pointing out that the highest increase affects adult diners, who’ve seen the cost of lunch this year jump from $4 to $5.
FACING THE DEFECITS
Almost universally, Burdick said, schools lose money on hot lunch programs. This proves especially problematic for boards that have already pared down their budgets to the bare essentials.
“There’s not a lot of extra built into any of our budgets,” Burdick said. “My boards, across the board, have worked very hard … to make sure there aren’t any extras.”
They supplement revenues from food sales with money from their general fund. For some schools, like Robinson Elementary in Starksboro, relying more heavily on general fund money means that the lunch budget deficit facing the school is substantially smaller. (Burdick estimates the Starksboro school will only face a $600 lunch budget deficit at the end of the school year.)
The only school to break even on lunch costs in the ANeSU, according to Smith, is Beeman Elementary in New Haven — which also happens to be the only school to contract hot lunch service to an outside company, in this case the Abbey Group.
Negotiating the territory between raising prices for customers and raising prices for taxpayers is tricky.
“If you raise your prices at the hot lunch level, you’re only affecting the users,” Burdick said. Depending on the general fund, on the other hand, spreads out costs among taxpayers.
“We tend to try to balance price increases to the buyers with the (general fund money) that comes from the general taxpayer base,” he continued. “It’s a dance.”
For students heading back to the classroom, jockeying for a space in the lunch line may be the only “dance” on their minds.
For schools — and parents — struggling to fund those meals, the jig is a little more complicated.