May 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

School districts brace for rising lunch prices

Unused lunch tables are seen in an empty cafeteria during a period of Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) at Hazelwood Elementary School on January 11, 2022 in Louisville, Kentucky.

An empty cafeteria at Hazelwood Elementary School on Jan. 11 in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

School districts are preparing to raise school lunch prices for next year in anticipation of federal lunch programs expiring this summer.

Why it matters: It's the latest hit to schools' budgets that have endured staffing challenges, teacher resignations and other obstacles for two-plus years during the pandemic.

Driving the news: In Iowa, some Des Moines metro school boards have already approved increasing their lunch costs by up to 25 cents per meal, in comparison to the 2019-20 school year.

  • And in Jefferson County Public Schools near Denver, students will pay $1 more for lunch than they paid in 2019, Marketplace reports.

The big picture: As part of pandemic relief legislation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the pandemic increased school-year reimbursement rates and loosened requirements for food nutrition and preparation.

  • The extra reimbursements helped soften the spike in food costs and offset higher pay for cafeteria workers and delivery drivers that continue to be in short supply, Axios' Linh Ta reports.
  • Schools also provided free lunches to all students, regardless of their parents' income levels, as part of the Department of Agriculture program.
  • Approximately 90% of school districts served students free meals and took advantage of the higher reimbursement rates, according to the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service.
  • The waivers are set to expire June 30.

State of play: The School Nutrition Association is lobbying for an extension of the waivers.

  • "Returning to [prior] reimbursement rates would increase meal program losses and cut into education budgets, impeding efforts to meet the needs of students and jeopardizing progress in school nutrition programs," the association said in a position paper.
  • But, extending the waivers is likely to face Republican opposition, "as it did when Democrats tried to include the provision as part of the fiscal 2022 omnibus," Roll Call reports.

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