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Another year, another rise in the cost of school lunches. This month the Lansing Board of Education raised the price by ten cents for its elementary, middle, and high schools. Food Service Director Sandi Swearingen said the rise is necessary to remain in compliance with the Federal Lunch Equity mandate by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provides free lunches for school children who are eligible for for free or reduced price meals.

"The recommendation for lunch prices for the 2017-18 school year is to increase them by ten cents based on the State's Lunch Equity Tool," Food Service Director Sandi Swearingen told the Board. "It increases the Elementary and Middle school lunches to $2.80, and the High School is increased to $3.00."

Every year schools are required to make an adjustment be made to school meal prices to insure paying students are not being subsidized by the state's free meal reimbursement. The mandate requires that, "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."

Swearingen says the amount calculated to make pricing equitable keeps rising, but the mandate caps the amount of increase that can be applied in any year. Bringing the school district into full compliance may be impossible, as the total amount rises faster than schools can catch up.

"So far we haven't been able to," she said. "Schools are required to increase these prices every year as required until mandate requirements are met. So far we've always had to increase by ten cents. That's the cap that they set - that's as high as you have to go. They raise the mandate each year, so increases may continue indefinitely, but the annual cap has allowed us to increase gradually."

Swearingen says the price increases help cover increasing food costs associated with fruit and vegetable mandates, allows the food services program to offer fresh cut fruit and vegetables. She noted thst by gradually increasing the prices, families struggling in difficult economic times are not unduly burdened with large cost increases.

School Business Administrator Mary June King noted that the mandate may change given that the current administration in Washington is changing programs. Last month the Trump administration included a $9.2 billion (13.5%) cut to education in its proposed budget. King said that other districts are struggling under the current mandates, but Lansing is in remarkably good financial shape.

"We are probably the only school lunch program in the area that runs in the black," she said. "Other schools are paying as much as $250,000 a year into their school lunch program. The only thing that we cover is retirees from the school lunch program. If they carry health insurance the district has to assume those costs. Otherwise all of their benefits, all of their other payments are carried by the program."

School Superintendent Chris Pettograsso credited Swearingen for that success.

"Every three years we have a whole state review of the entire food service program," said Pettograsso. "At the very end of that program I get to meet with Sandy and the state auditors. They could not say enough about how amazing she is with the program, how thoughtful she is from the training all the way through the food she purchases, and how she plans and organizes. She is by far the top food service person that they've seen in the state. Huge kudos to her. She's been doing a great job."

Swearingen said the new prices will be in a letter sent to parents before school starts.

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