The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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July 27, 2012

Price of school lunches going up in Joplin

JOPLIN, Mo. — When Joplin parents send their kids back to school in a couple of weeks, they will be digging a little deeper for lunch money.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has ordered schools across the country to increase the price of lunches because of the rising costs of fuel and food. This year is the first year the Joplin School District will be affected by the increase, as it received a waiver last year because of the tornado.

Lunches for Joplin elementary and middle school students will increase by 10 cents to $1.50 and $1.60, respectively. High school lunches will increase 15 cents to $1.75. A la carte milk will increase 5 cents to 35 cents a carton.

In Joplin, 38 percent of students will be affected by the price increase, said Rick Kenkel, director of food service for Joplin schools. The changes will not affect students on free or reduced-price lunches. The district will have to meet the new standard of $2.59 for a full-priced lunch in the next several years.

“We’re stuck into raising prices for at least the next 10 years,” Kenkel said. “This is one of the ways to get money into the lunch program without the government having to pay the cost.”

About 58 percent, or 4,451 students, in Joplin qualified for free or reduced-price lunches in 2011, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

New guidelines also now require more dark-orange and -red vegetables and more fresh fruit, which will also cost districts more. Some examples of the foods schools are now required to provide include carrots, sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkin, kale, broccoli, collard greens and spinach.

“Those are challenging because most of those dark greens, with the exception of spinach, younger children probably don’t see a lot of those in this region of the country,” Kenkel said.

Kim Satterlee, PTO president at Columbia Elementary School who has first-grade and third-grade children, said she thinks the school district’s food has gotten better in the past year.

“It costs more to eat healthier,” she said. “The healthier they eat when they’re younger, they’ll make smarter choices and be better off and perform better. My kids like the lunches. They eat lunches there a lot and they eat everything on their plate. It’s worth it to have healthier options for sure.”

Kenkel said he has not yet received reaction from parents in the district.

“I feel we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping the paid lunch price as low as we can,” Kenkel said. “My largest fear is paid families not participating and sack lunching. Hopefully it’s something we can maybe rebound from as everybody watches their dollars at home. An increase of 50 cents a week on lunch, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but can be truly a lot to many families.”

At a Joplin School Board meeting earlier this week, members said they were not in support of the increase but understood that it was federally mandated.

“We don’t like increases on anything, but when you’re handed down a federal mandate, it’s not much of a choice,” said school board President Randy Steele.

Steele said he wanted to remind parents to check to see whether their children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches before school starts on Aug. 15. Applications may be submitted any time during the school year.

“We don’t want kids going without lunch or breakfast,” he said.

The district has also revised its free and reduced-price lunch income guide for children, increasing the maximum income for eligibility. For a family of two, the new maximum annual household income is $19,669 for free meals and $27,991 for reduced-price meals. For a family of three, the new maximum annual household income is $24,817 for free meals and $35,317 for reduced-price meals.

The district’s last price increase was seven years ago, and the one before that was eight years prior.

School districts are also now required to lower the amount of sodium in food, which can be difficult because so many manufacturers use it for flavor and as a preservative, Kenkel said. The districts are required to halve sodium now and halve it again in the next five to six years, he said. Food provided by the district is baked, not fried.

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