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Willmar School Board raises lunch prices for '10-11, talks about free breakfast program

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WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board has approved a nickel increase in the cost of students' school meals for the 2010-11 school year.

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The increase, roughly $9 per student for the school year, came after a lengthy discussion at the board meeting Monday. One of the issues was whether the district should continue to provide breakfast free to all students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Annette Derouin, the director of nutrition services, told the board that she hesitated before asking to raise prices for the sixth time in 11 years, because it has been just one year since the last increase.

However, the previous practice of increasing prices every other year is not allowing her department to keep up with inflation and the price of food, she said.

"Is this enough," asked board member Mike Reynolds. "You're asking for a nickel when you probably need at least a dime."

"It's hard to come here," Derouin said, because she worries about families who just miss being eligible for reduced-price meals.

Board member Dion Warne said that the total cost for the year would be less than $10.

"For the majority of families, they can probably absorb that," said Finance Director Pam Harrington. "Some are on the line."

Derouin said Willmar's meal program tries to feed better food, including whole grains, fresh foods and locally grown foods. That food can cost more, though, and it can be hard to fit into tight budgets.

Willmar has been recognized as a statewide leader in the Farm to School program. Derouin has been instrumental in teaching other school districts how to bring local foods into their cafeterias.

After the increases approved Monday, the district will charge $1.10 for breakfast at the senior high, $1.70 for elementary lunch, and $1.85 for middle school and senior high lunch. Adult meals will be $1.70 for breakfast and $3.50 for lunch.

Those prices in nearly all cases are less than what is charged this year in nearby New London-Spicer schools. NLS also charges for breakfast at all ages.

The increase is expected to bring in about $21,400 next year. Last year the district served 282,549 paid lunches and 9,619 paid breakfasts.

About half the students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and would not be included in that count. The food service serves more than 1 million breakfasts, lunches and snacks during a school year.

Accounting for the food service is kept separate from other parts of the district. Funding in excess of expenses is used to build up a reserve to fund needed kitchen improvements.

Derouin's current concern is the middle school, with a kitchen that hasn't been upgraded since the building was built in the 1960s. A full remodel would cost more than $1 million, but it will be done in phases as the food service account builds its reserves, she said.

Board member Mike Reynolds asked if "we need to charge a little for breakfast."

Derouin said the district can cover the breakfast program for now. It is popular in the schools, she said. Some teachers will make requests for particular breakfasts on test days, she said.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said fewer students would use the program if the district charged for it. Participation is currently about 90 percent. Before, participation was about 15 percent.

Others pointed out that the district would have to have cashiers available and would have to change the way the program is handled.

Board member Eric Roberts said when the district extended the free breakfast program, it did so because "for some kids, this is their only chance at breakfast."

Currently, breakfast is delivered to classrooms for grades K-8.

Warne said he would rather look at the prices paid by adults. There is no state subsidy for adult meals. He was the one who made the motion to raise adult prices to $3.50.

"I would be hard-pressed to find lunch in this town for three dollars," he said. "Instead of putting this on the backs of kids," he said, he would rather raise the price for adults.

"I don't want to micromanage food service; you do a wonderful job," Warne said. "I'm working on how we get you more money."

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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