"Federal funds intended for free and reduced price lunches are being used to help fill in the gap between what a paid lunch costs and what the school receives for it," she said. "Effective July 1, 2011, schools are required to charge students for paid meals at a price that is on average equal to the difference between free meal reimbursement and paid meal reimbursement. The difference is $2.65. So we're supposed to be charging at least that much on average."
In the 2013-14 school year Lansing charged $2.40 in the elementary and middle schools, and $2.60 in the high school. Schools are required to review their paid lunch revenue annually to bring their programs into compliance with Section 205 of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. Superintendent Chris Pettograsso says that 22.2% of Lansing students qualify for free or reduced lunch subsidies district-wide.
Swearingen says that while there is no time frame imposed by the government, she is gradually adjusting the prices so that families are not burdened with the higher cost all at once. To try to relieve the burden on parents she is staggering the rises: last year she says the high school saw a larger price rise, and this year the elementary and middle schools will have a higher rise.
"We're trying to equal out the increase between the schools," she said.
The new prices will be $2.50 in the elementary and middle schools and $2.65 in the high school. This brings Lansing closer to compliance with the Paid Lunch Equity mandated price of $2.65 per meal, and helps pay for the cost of new mandates that require schools to provide healthy fruit and vegetables. She also recommended that breakfast prices be raised by five cents.
In Ithaca lunch prices will remain the same. Middle school ($2.75) and high school ($3.00) luch prices already exceed the mandated $2.65. Elementary school lunch prices ($2.50) are staying the same, but breakfast costs in elementary schools are rising by 15 cents. The lowest school lunch prices in Tompkins County are at Groton schools, which charged $1.90 for elementary school lunch and $2.15 in the middle and high schools. Those prices are going each up by 5 cents, which will still be the lowest lunch prices in the County.
Board member asked whether price rises should be higher to provide better quality healthy foods. Swearingen said that the district has a surplus of canned fruit through the Brown Box program. She said she would like to add more fresh fruit that kids can take with them to the classrooms for snacks. But she was firm in remaining sensitive to families who are already overwhelmed with rising prices.
"I would like to keep it at the lower end," she said. "It still very hard. It seemed like we had a slight increase of free and reduced lunch applications. It's been very difficult for some parents when the full price goes higher. I think we can do it with the surplus that we have. We're doing OK."
Lansing's food program is self sustaining. While it was operating in the red for some time, Swearingen has brought it back to the point where it pays for itself. School Business Administrator Mary June King credited Swearingen with cutting labor costs, which was later vindicated by state officials.
"This past year we were the only district in this area that didn't subsidize its school lunch program out of our general fund," said King. "Some districts are subsidizing their school lunch programs with huge amounts. Some are spending a lot of money on consultants to find out what's wrong. It's simple stuff, it's the battles that Sandy fought years ago. This program went into the black in '08-'09 and it's stayed that way ever since."
The board unanimously passed the price rises. Families are scheduled to receive communication about the new prices between August 25th and September 5th, and the new prices will go into effect September 5th.