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Hernando students facing higher prices for school lunches

BROOKSVILLE — School lunch prices will increase next year, but it's up to the Hernando County School Board to decide by how much.

The board on Tuesday will consider two options for raising the prices to ensure the district is in compliance with federal law. The law requires districts to charge enough that the revenue from students who pay for their lunches is enough to cover the expense to provide those meals. Federal dollars received for the free and reduced-price meal program cannot subsidize the cost of meals for students who pay full price, said food and nutrition services director Lori Drenth.

To comply with the law, Drenth said, the Hernando district must raise elementary lunch prices by 30 cents, to $2, and the high school lunch price by a quarter, to $2.25.

One option is to increase the prices by the full amount right away, effective next school year.

The district doesn't have to do it that way, though. The law gives districts that are not in compliance the option to get there gradually by raising prices by a minimum of 10 cents each year.

The second option Drenth will present to the board is to raise the prices incrementally over the next three years.

The elementary lunch prices would rise by 10 cents each year, reaching $2 by the 2014-15 school year. The high school rates would increase by 10 cents over the next two years and then by a nickel in 2014-15.

The obvious benefit of the second option is to soften the blow to family budgets, Drenth said.

"You can do the slow, steady increase, and the other option is to rip the Band-Aid off and get us to where we need to be quickly," she said.

Both options include a two-tier high school lunch pricing system that would start in 2014-15. Students would pay $2.25 for the standard fare, or $2.50 for premium entrees that cost the district more to provide. These might include some pizzas, chicken breast and vegetarian items such as hummus and a spicy black bean burger.

The price increases would affect thousands of families.

Of the district's roughly 22,500 students, about 8,300 are currently not eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, Drenth said. Of those, about 6,200, or 75 percent, purchase meals.

Those numbers constantly fluctuate, but Drenth said she is fairly confident that the prices reached in 2014-15 would keep the district in compliance with the federal law for some time.

"That will give us some breathing room and give us the opportunity to keep it static for a while," she said.

Drenth's department budget is about $10 million, the bulk of the revenue coming from federal sources. Roughly 94 percent of the budget goes to food, employee salaries and benefits. The rest goes to pay for various supplies and to reimburse the district for associated costs, from electric bills to trash bins.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Hernando students facing higher prices for school lunches 05/10/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 10, 2012 7:48pm]
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