LAND O'LAKES — No one wants to do it.
But to keep the Pasco school district's food and nutrition services budget in the black, as required by law, director Rick Kurtz is recommending the School Board increase the amount kids pay for breakfast and lunch — once in March, and again for the new school year in August.
He has proposed charging 5 cents more for breakfast and 10 cents more for lunch, each time.
"The challenge is, I'm looking at a tough time next year, so I don't want to be in a situation where I don't have any fund balance," which currently stands at $1-million, Kurtz said. Already, "my expenses through the end of December have exceeded my revenue by that same $1-million."
Before the school year started, Kurtz told superintendent Heather Fiorentino the department might need to raise meal prices by 25 cents to make ends meet. Fiorentino told him to look for other ways to save money first.
Since then, the district has cut back menu choices, reduced workers, renegotiated supply contracts and increased prices of some specialty meals, always aiming to keep the basic breakfast and lunch prices unchanged. Officials continue to look for savings, focusing now on managing leftovers better.
But as job losses mounted, the number of Pasco families receiving food stamps grew 65 percent over the past year. That in turn pushed up the volume of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals from 43.5 percent to about 48 percent. Projections have eligibility rising to 50 percent by March.
The cost of milk, vegetables, fruit, whole wheat bread and other foods remain on the rise. The gap between the amount districts pay to provide meals and the amount the federal government reimburses them for free and reduced-price meals has reached its widest level in years.
And the district's sale of a la carte items, which traditionally bring in enough cash to balance the budget, are slowing.
"We are in a position where we need to make some small adjustments" to meal prices, Kurtz said.
Pasco is not alone.
Hillsborough schools increased their meal prices by 50 cents over the summer. Other Florida districts recently hiking their prices include Martin, Seminole, Volusia and Baker, with several more saying they have the idea under consideration.
Across the nation, 73 percent of school districts began charging more for meals over the past year, according to a School Nutrition Association study released in September. The average increase was 24 cents.
"The main driving force would be food prices," association spokesman Erik Peterson said. "It is a really difficult decision to make because, obviously, you don't want parents to be priced out."
Still, Peterson said, the economy has made it so food and nutrition officials are down to "managing pennies" and yet continue to expect more meal price increases in the coming months — even midyear, which traditionally hasn't been the norm.
If there's good news to come out of this, he said, it's that Congress is moving ahead with increased school nutrition funding as part of its economic stimulus package. And even with price hikes, he added, the average cost to fix lunch at home is over $3 compared to the average school lunch price of $2.07.
That doesn't make it easy, though, to make the decision to impose higher prices on local families.
"One of my hopes is that will be our last resort," Pasco School Board member Joanne Hurley said, suggesting that all other options must be exhausted first. "In the end, if it has to be and that is our last resort, then I would take a good look at it."
Fiorentino has yet to make her recommendation to the School Board. She has asked for more data to justify an increase. If she goes with the price hike, the board is expected to consider the change in early February to give parents a month to prepare.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.