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October 24, 2014

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Education:

School lunch prices might creep higher

Board weighing hike to cover cost increases

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STEVE MARCUS / LAS VEGAS SUN

Kindergartner Adriana Romero opens a fruit bowl Wednesday morning at Cortez Elementary School, where the price of meals would increase by 25 cents each with the School Board’s OK.

The Clark County School District is poised to raise the cost of a school lunch by 25 cents for a second consecutive year, a move officials said is needed to cover the rising cost of making, delivering and serving more than 31 million meals a year.

Before 2008, the district had not increased its basic cafeteria menu prices in seven years. If approved by the Clark County School Board today, the cost of elementary school breakfasts would increase to $1.25 from a dollar, and lunches to $1.75 from $1.50. At the middle and high school levels, breakfast would cost $1.50 instead of $1.25. Lunch prices would remain $3.

The district’s food services division — which has about 1,000 full-time employees and another 1,000 part-time workers — is required to be self-supporting and receives no money from the district’s general fund. Its operating budget is $80 million to $90 million.

Food services Director Charles Anderson said the recommended price increases reflect a 14.5 percent rise in food-related costs and a nearly 8 percent increase in employee salaries and benefits over the past year.

When he recommended bumping up the prices by 25 cents last year, Anderson had doubts it would raise enough money to balance the division’s budget, he said. But “I didn’t want to hit people with 50 cents when we were just starting the recession,” he said.

“I hoped prices would stabilize, but that’s not happening,” Anderson said.

School Board President Terri Janison said she wants to hear a convincing argument for the increase before she will vote for a price hike for the second year in a row.

Janison wants to know what the food services division is doing to expand its customer base, particularly to teachers and staff. Increasing volume would help keep prices low, she said, adding that even with another 25 cents tacked on, the meals are still a good value.

At Cortez Elementary School, on Tonopah Avenue near Lamb Boulevard, Wednesday’s breakfast menu included miniature waffles to dip in syrup, fruit cups and cartons of milk.

“Breakfast makes me more healthy for school,” fourth grader Deedrah Corral said. “So I don’t fall asleep or anything.”

Although a 25-cent increase might not sound like much, the cost can add up, particularly for families with multiple children eating regularly in cafeterias, Cortez Principal Ariel Villalobos said.

At Cortez, 30 percent of the more than 800 students arrive early for breakfast, and more than half buy lunch. Nearly 80 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, but that doesn’t mean the remaining 20 percent are well off, Villalobos said. Some families are close to the low-income threshold, and others are eligible but just haven’t signed up for free or reduced-price meals.

If the increase in prices spurs some families to fill out the paperwork, schools could benefit from an increase in federal aid.

Federal Title I funding is designated for schools serving the most students from low-income households. To qualify, the percentage of students at a school who qualify for free or reduced-price meals must at least meet the districtwide average, which is 46 percent.

Given that Cortez is a Title I school, Villalobos understands the value of the extra funding. But his more immediate need is making sure as many of his students as possible have access to affordable meals.

Studies have long shown that healthy students are more likely to succeed academically, and “nutrition plays a big part in that,” Villalobos said. “Kids can’t learn when they’re hungry.”

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