Pawtucket school officials consider raising student lunch prices

Pawtucket school officials consider raising student lunch prices

PAWTUCKET - The cost for school lunches could be going up as part of a proposed plan by local school officials to come into compliance with federal pricing guidelines.

An idea being considered by the Pawtucket School Committee could raise school lunches prices by 10 cents, with the possibility of more increases in the future. Federal officials can only require a maximum of a 10-cent increase in any single year, said Melissa Devine, chief financial officer for the Pawtucket School Department.

Devine is telling School Committee members that prices for the younger grades would rise from $1.55 to $1.65 while the prices for high school students would increase from $1.70 currently to $1.80.

The Pawtucket School Committee is certainly free to do as it pleases when it comes to school lunch prices, said Devine, but federal guidelines require that school districts move toward the $2.65 per lunch that school districts are reimbursed for students who are eligible for free lunches.

School Committee members so far are reluctant to up the price by 10 cents. Member David Coughlin pointed out that 10 cents a day, over the course of a year, would amount to $20, an increase that could be a problem for students who are right on the line of not qualifying for free or reduced lunches.

Devine explained that the committee doesn't have to boost prices by 10 cents if members are concerned that students can't afford it. They have an option to go with a smaller number, like 5 cents, she said.

Devine explained to The Breeze that the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires "school food authorities" participating in a national lunch program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure that they are "providing the same level of support" from students who are not eligible for free and reduced lunches as is paid for those who are eligible.

School officials couldn't immediately say how many students are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

The "nationally assigned" number of $2.65 "should be what everyone is charging the kids who are not free," said Devine. The local school department's "weighted average" price of $1.60 for school lunches is "way below what they're saying we should be paying," said Devine.

If school officials decide they don't want to inch toward the $2.65 figure by raising prices, they could seek a waiver, said Devine.

School Supt. Patti DiCenso said school officials take a look at the food service program every year and then make a decision on whether to raise lunch prices based on that analysis. The idea of raising lunch prices when Sodexo is running a surplus "does make you pause," she said.

"Do we have to raise it if we are not having financial issues?" asked DiCenso.

Solange Morissette, general manager of school services for food provider Sodexo, said Pawtucket school officials have not raised their lunch prices for many years because they haven't needed to. The percentage of students who pay for their meals has been very low in comparison to the number of free and reduced price meals, she said.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act requires "school food authorities" to evaluate the difference between the paid meal price plus the reimbursement for reduced meals and free meals.

If school food authority's average price for lunches is less than the difference between the free and paid reimbursements, it must increase revenue by upping the price of meals.

According to Devine, the school lunch program in Pawtucket has been "pretty successful" at operating with a surplus. Excess funds are used to revamp or buy new equipment, she said. If the fund runs at a deficit, money comes out of the schools' general fund to address the shortfall.