Students may have lunch-money blues

With the cost of food rising at historic rates, the county’s largest school district may have to charge children more for school lunches.

The San Mateo-Foster City School District board of trustees on Thursday will consider hiking lunch fees for elementary school kids from $2 to $2.50, and from $2.50 to $3 for middle school students. The price would be double what it was just nine years ago.

The hike will cost families about $10 per child a month, if those children eat a cafeteria lunch each day.

Hardest hit will be families who aren’t poor enough to qualify for the government’s free and reduced-price lunch program, but still struggle to make ends meet each month, said registered dietician Cass Ellison, administrator of child nutrition services for the district.

However, she said, the district has little choice: the lunch program is mandated to pay for itself, so when the price of food goes up, that cost must be passed onto the lunches’ young consumers.

And there’s no doubt that the price of food has gone up: The Labor Department reported Tuesday that the price of food rose three times the rate it was expected to in March. Wholesale prices for food are up 6.9 percent over the last year.

Meanwhile, school cafeterias have seen the cost of their most basic menu items skyrocket: A half pint of milk, for example, which they offer every child at every meal, has gone up by 7 cents — or 38 percent — in the last year, Ellison said.

More than half the students who eat cafeteria lunches each day qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, in which the federal and state governments give schools money to feed low-income students, she said.

To qualify, children must come from families that earn less than a federally mandated threshold — for example, less than $38,000 a year for a family of four. But for the working poor who do not quite qualify for the program, the 50-cent-a-meal hike could add up, said Christine Rastas, a director at the nonprofit Child Care Coordinating Council of San Mateo County.

“When you’re really scraping by, paying for the transportation and rent costs around here, every dollar counts,” she said.

Ellison said she’s hoping inflation will slow, otherwise she’ll be forced to come back to the school board next year for another increase — something she’d rather not do.

“Money’s tight for a lot of families right now,” she said.

kworth@examiner.com

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