vegetables1The Lansing Board of Education approved higher meal rates Monday to comply a with federal mandate that would eventually require Lansing to charge $2.78 for paid lunches.  Food Service Supervisor Sandra Swearingen explained that the mandate is intended to insure that federal dollars intended for students who qualify for free meals are not used to subsidize paid meals.  Swearingen told the board that gradually increasing prices each year until the mandate is met rather than imposing the mandated price all at once respects difficult economic times for families.  But she said that the federal government keeps raising the mandated meal price.

"We've been raising it as little as possible so we don't put a lot of burden on our students' families," she said.  "We want to communicate the changes to the families before the start of the school year and prepare them for the annual meal price increases until we meet the Federal Lunch Equity.  As usual the mandates keep increasing, so we never seem to get there."

Swearingen explained that school Food Service Authorities who charged less than $2.78 for paid lunches in the school year 2015-16 are required to adjust their weighted average lunch price or add non-Federal funds to the non-profit school food service account.

"$2.78 is the difference between the free and the paid reimbursement rates we receive," she said.

Currently Lansing's lunch prices are at $2.60 in the Elementary and Middle schools and $2.75 in the High School.  Those are increasing by a dime in the Elementary and Middle schools, and 15 cents in the High School.

"We recommend that the Elementary and the Middle School both increase to $2.70," Swearingen said.  "And that the High School increase to $2.90.  The recommended average price of $2.76, which would still be under the mandated federal lunch equity price of $2.78.  I also recommend we increase the Elementary and Middle School breakfast by five cents, and the High School by 10 cents."

To put things in perspective, Dryden is increasing their lunch and breakfast charges by five cents, charging $2.35 for lunch, and $2.65 for breakfast.  Ithaca is increasing Elementary School breakfast by five cents to $2.55, Middle School lunch by a quarter to $2.80, and High School lunch by a nickel to $3.05.  Groton Elementary School lunch is rising 10 cents to $2.10, and remaining at $2.25 in the Middle and High schools.  Trumansburg and Newfield are still deciding.  Lansing is also increasing breakfast prices by five cents in the Elementary and Middle schools and 10 cents in the High School. 

But even with lower prices than Lansing's, property taxpayers in neighboring districts may be paying more than Lansing for school meals.  School Business Administrator Mary June King noted that most area districts contribute to their meal programs from their district general fund, taking some burden off parents, but placing more on taxpayers.

"As far as I know we are the only district in the area -- I'm not sure about Ithaca, but of all the other medium and small sized districts in the area -- that runs its school lunch program in the black," King said.  "The rest are taking money from their general fund to pay parts of their labor costs, parts of their active employees health insurance costs and things of that nature.  Some of them are significant -- there are some districts paying close to a quarter of a million dollars a year out of their general fund."

Swearingen pointed out that her program has made efforts to reach out to students and the community to incorporate their ideas into the meal program.  She met with Elementary School Student Council members at the beginning of the school year.  A 4th grade council member presented her with a survey students had taken to give input on what they want in the cafeteria.

"I took her on a tour of the kitchen and explained the program," Swearingen said.  "She explained what they were looking for.  I told her I would implement some of those changes and I wanted to continue to meet with her, because she will now be in 5th grade in the Middle School.  We're going to try to set up a lunch where I sit with the kids who are in Student Council, eat lunch with them and brainstorm about different things that they would like.  It was very interesting .  It was very nice.  We're starting with the elementary kids and go from there."

"One of the things Sandy's responded to is students' requests for fresh vegetables," added Superintendent Chris Pettograsso.  "It's not necessarily the cost of the vegetables, but the prep time and personnel involved in that.  It's in direct response to what our community has been asking for and trying to find a good balance for all of our members."

Swearingen noted that her staff goes above and beyond mandates for nutrition in the Lansing schools.

"When we talk about breakfast, we offer fresh muffins," she said.  "We don't serve packaged.  A favorite of the students is our whole grain pumpkin muffin, and we also have blueberry scones at the high school.  There are other items we make from scratch as well.  We have fresh cut vegetables and fruits.  We also have a lot of crunch carrots, because we do not buy bagged carrots."

Swearingen said she asked for state guidance in determining this year's rates because the ratio of students who qualify for lower prices to those who don't is skewed compared to other districts.  She said Lansing has more students who are being charged the lower price than the higher price, while there are more students being charged the higher price in other districts.

Pettograsso explained that while many districts restrict the foods available to students who are behind in meal payments, Lansing chooses not to do so.  Currently about $5,000 is owed by families.  Lansing's procedure is to front the money to the meals program, paying the amount from the general fund.  Then the district, not the food services program, goes after those in arrears to attempt to collect the money.

Because of growing enrollment, the Head Start program in Lansing has been asked to move out of the school building, and is currently looking for an alternative space.  Pettograsso said the move would also have an impact on the food services program because Head Start has been using the program.

"That was a funding source.  Not that this has anything to do with that, but we're trying to be creative in our thinking and our planning," she said.  "Even if they are able to find a local place, maybe we can continue to serve them so we won't lose that source and they will still have quality food delivered to them.  So we're still being proactive with that."