About 1.4 million school lunches were served in the Columbia Public School District last year. This year, the school district will receive an additional nickel for about one-third of the lunches served.
About 30 percent of the 16,600 students in the district received free or reduced-price lunches last year. Similar numbers are expected for the coming school year. Although the district’s food service is operating in the black, the federal reimbursement rates for lunch and breakfast programs will provide an additional five cents for every free and reduced lunch served.
“It’s adjusted for inflation,” said Craig Forman, regional public affairs director for the food and nutrition service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture based in Denver. “We’re seeing a lot of states struggling with the budget. This will be more beneficial than ever before.”
With the five-cent stipend, the district can anticipate about a $21,000 reimbursement from the federal government.
The federal lunch program is part of an agriculture bill appropriated by Congress and is reviewed annually. Schools across the nation will receive an increase of one cent for full-price lunches and five cents for free and reduced lunches.
Willene Alley, director of school food services for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the government provides the school lunch program 21 cents for each full-price lunch, $1.79 for each reduced lunch and $2.19 for each free lunch served.
In Columbia, full-price school lunch costs $1.35 at the elementary level, $1.60 for middle school and $1.65 at the secondary level. Reduced lunches are 40 cents per lunch.
The price of food goes up “at least 3 percent each year,” said Pat Brooks, director of food service for the Columbia Public Schools. “It’s just a drop in the bucket.”
“Hopefully it will make some changes,” Brooks said. “We would like more commodities for breakfast.”
Brooks also said that the district has not raised lunch prices and that staff starting salaries will remain the same, with pro-rated insurance benefits.
“We always try to make it a benefit to the students,” she said. “We want to make sure we are including as many fruits and vegetables as we possibly can.”
Each year the Columbia Public School District is mandated by federal law to re-verify applicants of the free and reduced lunch program. The federal program allows children in the public school system to afford the nutrition they need based on family income and household size.
“The scale increases every year,” Alley said.
The maximum income to qualify for free lunch is 130 percent of the federal poverty level, and reduced lunch is 185 percent of the poverty level, Alley said.
Last year, a family of four with an income of $23,530 or less was eligible for free lunches. A family of four with an income of $33,485 or less could receive reduced lunches. This year, a family of four with a $23,920 income or less is eligible for free school lunches, and a family of four earning $34,040 or less is eligible for reduced lunches.
Lunch is often taken for granted. It’s a break in the busy workday, a social hour and a time to refuel. For children, nourishment is important to focus and learn, Brooks said.
“It’s a wonderful program. Kids need to eat to learn,” Brooks said.
The re-application process must take place every year. The program carries over from last year for the first 30 days of the school year, but Brooks recommends completing the process before the school year begins.