The Mineral County School Board gave its tacit approval on Aug. 1 to a measure that will increase the cost of all school lunches by 25 cents for each meal at all the schools in the district.

In July 2012, the board approved a measure to increase the cost of meals by 25 cents each year for two year.

Starting later this month, elementary school students will pay $1.25 for breakfast and $2 for lunch; junior high students will pay $1.50 for breakfast and $2.50 for lunch; and high school students will spend $1.50 on breakfast and $2.75 on lunch.

The increase is expected to raise about $4,500 for the district in the next school year.

Chris Schlutz, Mineral County superintendent, said school food programs are intended to be cost neutral. The price paid for meals, bills paid for reduced lunch, and federal reimbursement for free and reduced cost meals should cover the cost of food, labor and the buildings and facilities used to cook the meals, Schultz said.

“The federal government estimates that we should be able to put out breakfasts at $1.85 and we should be able to put out lunches at $2.94,” Schlutz said, referring to the rate the feds reimburse the district. “I’m not sure we always accomplish that. I suspect some of the work we have to do is find a way to get our prices down.”

Last year the district spent $125,000 on the food program, Schultz said. The money that goes into the program doesn’t count the cost of operating the cafeterias of constructing new buildings, Schultz said.

The cost of meals is one of the major factors in the difficulties the program has breaking even.

Federal regulations requiring schools to offer more and more fresh produce in their meals is one concern.

“[Fresh food] may or may not cost more, but fresh food takes more time in preparation so there’s more cost to the meal,” Schultz said.

The difficulty comes in no small part because of the cost of labor and food, Schultz said.

“Meeting that target’s hard,” Schultz said. “Putting out a decent breakfast for $1.85 is a challenge. Even if we meet the federal government’s target, we’re still undercharging our kids.”

The problem is compounded by some members of the community who don’t pay for the food their children eat.

Schultz said the district bills parents for the meals their children eat, but when those bills aren’t paid the district must make up the shortfall.

Currently the district is owed about $11,500. Combined with the money the district lost early this year when it failed to file forms requesting reimbursement, unpaid bills account for nearly $30,000 of the shortfall in the food program.

“When we know we’re $125,000 over, we’ve got to aways more to go,” Schultz said. “We’ve got to get everybody to pay, and pick up the extra few thousand there.”

Increased prices are going up to help make up that shortfall, Schultz said. But the new prices won’t be enough to solve the problem.

“Next year with the 25 cent increase […] even if we met the federal target we’re losing 60 cents a meal on the elementary school breakfast,” Schultz said.

The elementary school breakfasts have the second largest difference between the amount charged and the federal reimbursement rate, behind only elementary school lunches, which cost 94 cents less than the reimbursement rate.

“We should be able to make an adequate—not a very inspired, but an adequate—meal, that meets the nutritional standards, that pays for the food and the staff for $1.85 for breakfast and $2.94 for lunch,” Schultz said. “We’re not going to have roast beef lunches very often.”

Paying the cost

The money to pay for the food program has to come from somewhere. In Mineral County, the money is taken from teachers, programs and classrooms, Schlutz said.

“People want to disconnect money from learning. There aren’t a lot of schools where all the teachers volunteer,” Schultz said. “These teachers aren’t just teachers. They’re parents who have families of their own. They have bills of their own they have to pay. […] If we’re going to attract and teach quality educators, we’ve got to pay well.”

Schultz said the money spent on food programs could instead have been spent on giving teachers raises to attract and retain talented educators. Schultz said Mineral County teachers are the lowest paid in the state.

Schultz said every child in Mineral County has the right to expect an excellent education.

“That means that my staff gets raises,” he said. “At the same time, I’m saying ‘You need to perform better. And if you come to work here, you need to know that the standards are higher than what they used to be, and we have an expectation for superb work, not okay work.’”

Schultz said the cafeteria kitchens haven’t been updated since the mid ‘90’s. Upgrading those facilities is expected to be part of the food program’s budget, but because of the shortfall that upgrade has been impossible.

The district also needs to upgrade the kitchen’s refrigerators, Schultz said.

Schultz recalled trying to cook at a staff breakfast in the cafeteria and discovering the cafeteria didn’t have any knives sharp enough to cut a bell pepper.

“We don’t even have the tools we need and we’re still hemorrhaging money,” he said.

Schultz said parents can help offset the fiscal woes caused by the food services shortfall in two ways: by paying bills they are sent, and by filling out applications for free and reduced lunch.

Schultz said there are a number of factors that typically keep parents from filling out the forms.

One is fear the district will know their financial information.

Schultz said there are “very strict” guidelines that govern who is allowed to see the free and reduced lunch data the school collects, and which parts of the data they’re allowed to see.

“It has to be collected and it has to be reported because the feds require it,” Schultz said of financial data. “But we keep the names. We don’t share the names with people. The feds need our numbers.”

Even when the district’s food program is audited, the forms are only spot checked to make sure the forms have been filled out correctly, Schultz said.

Beyond audits, the only people who ever see the names of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are the people who do the record keeping, Schultz said.

When children buy lunch from the schools in Mineral County, their teacher takes down their name. Before bills are sent out, the names of the children who ate are compared to the names of those eligible for free and reduced lunch to make sure the correct families are billed, Schultz said.

“If a parent says ‘Yeah, but those people might know me,’ Well, here’s what I would say to the parent. ‘Is your worry about somebody not thinking well of you more important than your child?’ the answer should be ‘No,’” Schultz said.

Schultz said it’s crucial for parents to fill the forms out even if they think won’t qualify. Some parents who don’t qualify for free lunch qualify for reduced lunch, he said.

The number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch is used to calculate the federal reimbursement rate, as well as eligibility for grants and other federal programs.

“The federal government believes that census data, which is the most accurate data you can get, is not a good data source because they do it every 10 years,” he said. “So, two years later, they’re saying, ‘Well, that’s old data.’ […]

“Federal programs that decide whether you qualify will not use census data. So, we have to use the most recent data, which is free and reduced lunch.”

Board support

The board seemed supportive of increasing the charge. Because the plan was put in place two years ago, the board didn’t need to take any action to increase the cost of meals at school.

And aside from suggesting the price of the meals should increase, no action was taken.

“If we’re doing our job, we’re keeping up on this,” Schultz said. “If our cost goes up 10 cents a year, we pass that on to the parents. We don’t continue to have our costs go up and ignore the charges that we aren’t making.”

Schultz said the district hasn’t been keeping up with those charges. It seems unreasonable, he said, to make several years worth of price increases at once.

“People live in tight budgets,” he said. “If you add a cost to your budget and it’s a small cost, you find a way. If you add a cost to your budget that’s a large cost, you may not be able to find a way so easily.

“It’s reasonable to increase the 25 cents given that we’re still 60 cents short on the elementary level for breakfast.”

Schultz said the price of lunch may have to go up again next year and again the year after to help pay off the deficit.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Schultz said. “It isn’t any one thing. […]

“We’re undercharging already, we may not be getting enough money from the feds to cover what we actually have to expend, and we’re not collecting any money from the people who are actually eating.”