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Schools weigh raising lunch prices by a quarter

POSTED: January 19, 2009 6:06 p.m.

June Poulsen, food service coordinator for the Effingham County School System, recommended increasing lunch prices by 25 cents during a presentation to the Board of Education on Thursday.

Superintendent Randy Shearouse said the board has looked at food service for the past couple of years and has had to contribute to the food service to keep it working.

By raising the school lunch prices by 25 cents, lunch prices for elementary students would be $1.75, and middle and high school lunches would cost $2.

Shearouse said the board raised lunch prices $0.10 and then $0.15, and then did not raise prices last year.

Poulsen reviewed federal requirements that include the program being self-funded with two to three months operating costs available. The program must meet the dietary guidelines and undergo a school meals initiative review.

She said reimbursement for meals requires that the program be in compliance with state and federal regulations.

Poulsen told the board free lunches receive a $2.57 reimbursement from the federal government, reduced lunches receive $2.17 and paid lunches receive $0.24. Current prices are $1.50 at elementary, $1.75 middle and high, all reduced lunches are $0.40.

There is no reimbursement for adults. Staff members are charged $2.75 and visitors $4.25.

She said it costs $2.41 to prepare a meal.

Shearouse said based on the cost, the system makes a little money on free and reduced lunches.

“The higher your free and reduced percentage is, the better off you’re going to be,” Poulsen said. “Effingham County has approximately a 36 percent free and reduced rate, so it makes it a little bit of a challenge.

She said the system loses 67 cents a meal at elementary schools and 42 cents a meal at the middle and high schools.
Poulsen said food service is also required to meet dietary guidelines. For lunch the program is required to provide a sizable amount of the recommended dietary allowances for key nutrients for the age group.

“These guidelines are monitored by the state,” Poulsen said. “They’re going to look and see how much fat is in the diet, do we have enough vitamin C, and they’ll actually analyze our menus.”

She said the system uses offer vs. serve, and there are specific serving sizes that are required to be served for the meal to be reimbursable. The five components of the “offer vs. serve” are protein, breads or grains, fruits, vegetables and milk.

“A student must have three of those on the tray for us to be able to ring it up as a reimbursable meal, and file it with the federal government for reimbursement,” Poulsen said. “A child does not have to have all five items.”

Poulsen said offer vs. serve was introduced to reduce waste. There are serving size requirements.

She said there was a school meals initiative review conducted in January 2008 and the results are still pending. The fat content was high, and offer vs. serve was not being implemented.

“In the previous SMIs, the system had to have additional reviews primarily because of fat content,” she said. “We do a lot of frying in this system, and frying will actually double the fat content in many items. We need to look at not using fryers, and use them infrequently for few items, and learn to cook a little bit healthier.”

Poulsen said if a school meals program continues to receive negative evaluations from the state, its federal funding could be withheld.

“At that point, it becomes the district’s program to run,” she said.

She said price increases in food were 14 percent for milk, 13 percent for fruits and vegetables, 11 percent for meat and meat alternates and 15 percent for bread. A hamburger meal costs $1.07 per plate, a pizza meal costs $1.08, a sausage dog meal cost $1.33 and a chicken nugget meal cost $1.03.

“Cost is not the only reason we have to be looking at some of the menu items,” she said. “The sausage dog has 54 percent fat, of that 60 percent of that is saturated fat. On top of that, it’s 62 cents. And you have to put it on a bun, so when you get done, it’s 76 cents, which is way over the price point of what we can afford to have. That menu item has been removed.”

She said it was removed not only for cost, but also because the nutrition did not meet the program guidelines.

Poulsen said 73 percent of school districts have increased lunch prices to keep up with costs. The average increase in a paid lunch has been $0.23. The average cost of a meal has risen from $1.96 to $2.08 from 2007-2008 to the current school year.

She said the average cost of a meal prepared at home is $3.40.

Poulsen reviewed the formula to determine lunch prices. After the cost of $2.41 to prepare a meal, there is 24 cents in reimbursement and another 17 cents in U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities is subtracted.

She said the percentage of the cost of a meal should be 40 percent food costs, 40 percent labor costs and 20 percent other costs. Other costs include paper products and other disposable products and fees paid by food services.

She said the food cost per meal should be $1.03. Currently the average meal is $1.08 for food costs.

“The difference between the actual food cost and the desired food cost is 5 cents. We serve approximately 8,000 student meals per day, which comes out to be $400 a day we are over what we need to be,” Paulsen said.

Multiplied by serving days, which is 180, that’s $72,000 per year in additional costs “just because of a few pennies,” she said.

She said the quality should be maintained, but costs must be controlled.

“Pennies do add up when you serve 8,000 meals a day,” Poulsen said.

She said the entrée portion of the meal should be approximately $0.50 because milk is now $0.23.

She said there are days that can be balanced out by having a more expensive entrée one day, and a less expensive entrée another day to balance out the cost.

Poulsen said there has been a withdraw in the system for French fries.

“There are a few things in this system that I’m getting a little bit of a reputation for, French fries is one of them,” she said. “They were at one point giving out one to two cups of French fries in a serving.”

The guidelines only allow half a cup of fries.

She said serving the correct serving size will get the system in line with the nutritional requirements, and bring costs in line.

Board member Lamar Allen asked why the system is not serving whole-wheat buns.

Poulsen said there is one bread vendor that was willing to come out, but she is used to having whole-wheat products, and that next year there will be more things.

“I realized that I had to tread a little lightly when I first came in here,” Poulsen said. “The eating habits were not as healthy as I would think they should have been within this program, so I’m trying to work this in slowly, so that we don’t have a total revolt of ‘I don’t want to eat school lunch any more because I can’t lose my meals.’ I have to keep my meals to keep the program going.”

She said there is approximately a 75 percent participation rate. Meals served in the kitchen determine the amount of labor required per school.

Shearouse said he was pleased to have Poulsen in the system.

“June brings to us a lot of expertise and experience, and I’m sure she’s found challenges,” he said. “She’s governed not only by what we like her to do, but also what the state likes her to do as far as portion sizes.”

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