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Faced with inflation in food costs, Willmar school officials consider price hike for meals

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School District is considering raising school meal prices for the next school year.

The board may also adopt a policy that would prohibit students from charging meals when their pre-paid lunch accounts are empty.

Food Service Director Annette Derouin discussed both issues with the School Board at an informal workshop meeting Monday. Decisions on the proposals will be made at a future official board meeting.

Derouin proposed a 5-cent increase in the cost to help deal with inflation in food prices.

The district would continue to provide breakfast at no charge for all students in grades K-8, Derouin said.

The district joined a purchasing cooperative that has helped control prices, she said, but inflation was more than 15 percent in 2008.

Current breakfast prices are $1 for grades 9-12 and $1.55 for adults. Current lunch prices are $1.60 for grades K-6, and $1.75 for grades 7-12. For families eligible for reduced-price meals, breakfast is free and lunch is 40 cents for grades K-12.

A 5-cent increase would raise breakfast prices about 4 percent and lunch prices about 3 percent, Derouin said. The increase would be the fifth one in 10 years.

Some board members suggested raising prices 10 cents, however. They said it would help the food service build its reserve fund, which is used to replace equipment in the kitchens. The food service fund is self-supporting. It is accounted for separately from the district's general fund, which pays for most day-to-day school expenses.

Derouin said she would prefer the 10-cent raise, but there's always a risk because "families have to make a decision if it's a good value."

Derouin said she also wanted the district to stop allowing children's lunch accounts to be charged to a negative $5 balance when their meal account is empty. After that, children are offered a minimal lunch of a cheese or peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk.

Sometimes, a family will wait until then to apply for free or reduced-price meals, she said, and it can be difficult for the district to collect the money owed. The total owed the district now is about $1,800.

Some districts she contacted do not allow families to charge meals once their account balance reaches zero, Derouin said. Some districts have an Angel Fund which provides a few meals for students whose lunch account is empty, giving the district some extra time to notify parents.