It's no secret that rising food prices are hitting everyone's pocketbooks. And like many school districts throughout the country struggling to provide healthy, low-cost meals for students, Pasco County will raise its meal prices this school year.
Breakfast and lunch prices for elementary students will remain the same as last school year, and there won't be any changes for those who qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch.
But this year, secondary students will be offered a two-tier lunch program that will see some entrees increase from $2.30 to $3. Adult lunches, which do not receive any government funding, will increase from $2.90 to $3.25.
"We've seen a significant increase in the cost of bread, milk, produce and all of our food," said Julie Hedine, a supervisor of food and nutrition for Pasco schools. "And the government rate of reimbursement for those foods is not keeping up with our cost increases."
Rather than raise prices for all meals or scrap some popular entrees, the district opted for a partial increase on entrees that are more expensive or labor-intensive.
Among the entrees slated for the increase to $3: chicken tenders, vegetarian burgers, Nacho Supreme and chicken Caesar salad. Items ringing in at last year's $2.30 price include stuffed-crust pizza, chef salad, pasta with meatballs and the cafe sub sandwich.
"Items on both menus are equally nutritious; all entrees will still include milk and two side choices," said Emily Laymon, food and nutrition training coordinator for Pasco schools.
"A lot of schools (elsewhere) are having to eliminate fresh fruits and vegetables and we're not doing that," she said. "This was our way of preserving menu items and avoiding an across-the-board increase. We wanted to keep the choices for the parents. That way families can decide what items to select according to their budget."
"We're doing our best to hold our prices down and keep a meal available at $2.30," Hedine said, noting that Pasco is able to do that and increase its buying power as part of a co-op with 39 other Florida school districts.
Even so, future inflation could cause meal prices to rise further.
"Our vendors will only lock in prices for six months at a time," Hedine said. "They're not willing to lock in prices for 12 months like they used to, so we could have to raise the prices midyear depending on how our prices come in (from vendors) for the second half of the school year."