COLUMBIA — New regulations for school lunch programs are bringing healthier options and a five-cent price bump at Columbia Public Schools starting this fall.
The Columbia School Board voted unanimously Monday to green-light an increase in elementary school lunch prices to $2.15 and secondary school lunch prices to $2.40.
The new cost will go into effect for the 2011-2012 school year.
"We think this is not only justified — it’s required,” Superintendent Chris Belcher said at the school board's session Monday.
The reason for the increase is a combination of a new federal reimbursement regulation called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and new U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements.
The new rules require schools to ensure that federal reimbursement dollars for meals are put toward free and reduced lunches, and not toward reducing the cost of paid lunches for non-qualifying students.
Currently, the district gets reimbursed $2.72 from the USDA for each free meal, said Laina Fullum, director of nutrition services for Columbia Public Schools. However, the district only charges students who pay for lunch – $2.10 in elementary schools and $2.35 in secondary schools.
The reason for the increase is to make up for the difference between what the district gets reimbursed and what students pay for lunch, she said. Inflation also had something to do with the price increase.
The combination of the federal regulation and inflation causes a 3.14 percent increase in the price of lunch, about seven cents, Fullum said. However, the district was able to round down the increase to five cents.
If the USDA increases the reimbursement rate again, lunch prices will also have to increase, she said.
Fullum said the price increase is also necessary because schools will begin serving healthier meals as part of new USDA nutritional requirements.
"In order to make healthier meals, we will have to have the money to do it," she said. "All of the changes proposed are very expensive."
The USDA suggested schools serve more dried beans, Fullum said. Dried beans, like black beans and garbanzo beans, are a good source of folic acid, fiber and iron.
Schools are already trying to get students used to beans by serving beans and rice in elementary schools on Mondays and Fridays, Fullum said.
"We're going to be experimenting with new recipes to see what students will accept," she said.
Cafeterias in Columbia schools will serve more whole grains, leafy greens and colorful vegetables starting this fall, Fullum said. The district will also incorporate more sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes into meals.
Fullum said many parents have asked for healthier foods.
"We have a very progressive community," she said. "Many people in Columbia are concerned with the food they eat and the food their children eat."