Lunch prices climb: Federal mandate for healthier fare for students hits parents in wallet

Lunch prices climb: Federal mandate for healthier fare for students hits parents in wallet

May 7th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

POLL: Are school lunches worth the money?


Here's how Hamilton County's school nutrition department will spend the $3 students will pay for a lunch next year:

• $1.20 on food

• $1.20 on labor

• 60¢ on other costs like equipment, service contracts and fuel for maintenance trucks

Source: Hamilton County Schools, school nutrition department


Here are several years worth of prices for students who pay full price for school breakfast and lunch programs:


• Breakfast: $1.25

• Lunch: $2.50


• Breakfast: $1.25

• Lunch: $2.50


• Breakfast: $1.50

• Lunch:$2.75


• Breakfast: $1.50

• Lunch: $2.75


• Breakfast: $2

• Lunch: $3

Source: Hamilton County Schools, school nutrition department

Cafeteria worker Willie Mae Smith serves lunch at Soddy-Daisy Middle School. Lila Beazley, a consultant with the state of Tennessee, visited the school recently to review its compliance with state nutritional guidelines.

Cafeteria worker Willie Mae Smith serves lunch at...

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

The school lunchroom isn't your typical supply-and-demand marketplace.

Demand for school lunches in Hamilton County is down to the tune of $1.2 million, but prices are only going up.

Food prices nearly always rise with inflation - both in the lunch line and the grocery store. But officials say an increase that will take effect next school year is due to taxing federal regulations that are mandating healthier foods. The cost of a school breakfast in Hamilton County will increase from $1.50 to $2 and lunches will go from $2.75 to $3.

It's the school district's second such increase in three years.

Since legislation was enacted in 2010, new federal rules have cut back the amount of fats, calories and salt that can be served in school breakfast and lunch programs. At the same time, school districts have been required to add more fruit and vegetable offerings. School officials say those healthier foods simply cost more. And participation is lower - some 1,000 students lower per day - than before the stricter federal regulations went into place.

Reforms have been trickling into school cafeterias for several years.

Beginning in 2012-13, schools were required to offer fruit daily, meet specific calorie limits and move at least half of all grains in lunches to whole grain. This school year, breakfast programs had to follow many of those rules. And next school year, schools will have to double the amount of fruit offered at breakfast, as well as start reducing sodium at breakfast and lunch.

To accommodate the changes, everyone is changing habits, said Carolyn Childs, Hamilton County's director of school nutrition. Switching from enriched pastas and breads to whole-wheat spaghetti and biscuits is a tough sell with many students. But it also means longstanding vendors have to change their offerings - which can increase prices.

"The entire industry is having to change," said Childs. "They're having to do more [research and development]."

On top of that, rising prices for everything from beef - which in March reached its highest price in more than 20 years - to fresh produce - hit hard by drought and a harsh winter - put additional upward pressure on lunch prices.

By requiring healthier school meals, federal officials had hoped to reverse years worth of negative health trends like rising childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes rates. And public schools were an easy target: School cafeterias serve more than 30 million lunches each day - more than 5 billion a year.

"That sounds great. We have a captive audience," Childs said. "But the drawback is the culture around us isn't ready."

A few years ago before the federal rules were enacted, well over 26,000 students ate school lunch each day in Hamilton County. Now that number is closer to 25,000. In 2012-13, the loss of participation caused a $1.2 million revenue loss from students who pay full-price for lunch. The federal government has upped its level of reimbursement, but Childs said it doesn't come close to the price of the more expensive healthy foods.

"Every year, we get a few cents extra, but it's never enough to compensate for all the laws that are changing," she said.

To help, school officials are looking at finding efficiencies in labor and will rework some menu items this summer to find new menu items that they hope students will eat.

The Hamilton County school board approved the price increase last month with a 7-2 vote.

Board members Mike Evatt and Rhonda Thurman voted against the hike.

"Only the government would think that makes sense," Thurman said. "Nobody's eating it so we're going to make it more expensive. It doesn't make any sense."

She said the federal government should get out of the school lunch business and let districts decide what to feed their students - whether it's hamburgers, pizza or fresh fruit and vegetables.

"Poor nutrition is better than no nutrition," Thurman said. "Some of these kids are getting no nutrition."

Hamilton County certainly isn't alone.

Half of all school systems surveyed by the national School Nutrition Association in 2013 said they planned on raising lunch prices for the current school year.

The national association, whose 55,000 members serve 60 percent of the nation's public school students, has asked for congressional relief to some of the strict nutritional guidelines.

In a position paper this year, the group wrote that after the 2010 legislation, school lunch "program costs soared, administrative burdens increased, and student participation in the school lunch program declined by more than one million meals per day."

School district officials across the country largely agree that some changes were needed to make school meals healthier, The Associated Press reported. But many say the new regulations, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, were enacted too quickly, leaving students little time to acclimate to healthier options.

Becky Domokos-Bays of Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia told The Associated Press she has tried serving whole-grain pasta 20 times. And 20 times, the students rejected it.

"The regulations are so prescriptive, so it's difficult to manage not only the nutrition side of your businesses but the business side of your business," she said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.