Children around the state will pay twice as much for a reduced-price school lunch and three times as much for a reduced-price breakfast starting Nov. 1, a direct result of state budget cuts.
That means that low-income children who qualify for the program will pay 40 cents for a reduced-price lunch, and 30 cents for a reduced-price breakfast.
The much larger free-meal program for the poorest students is not affected.
It is the first increase in the reduced-price meal program since 1987, and is expected to force some poor students out of the program.
"It essentially means that fewer kids will be able to eat breakfast," said Melissa Zieve, program director for the Maryland Food Committee. "Though that may only seem like a few cents a day . . . it adds up over the month."
Meanwhile, officials in Baltimore vow to keep their prices the same for the more than 5,000 city students who get reduced-price meals.
They hope to do that by trimming costs within the program, said Patsy B. Blackshear, deputy school superintendent.
But state officials say they must review federal regulations to see whether the city can legally charge less than the state-mandated price for a reduced-price meal.
Last year, the state-funded and federally funded subsidized meal program served 948,000 reduced-price breakfasts, and 4.6 million reduced-price lunches to students around the state.
The program is open to families who may not qualify for free meals but whose incomes are low enough to qualify for a break in the full price of a school meal.
For example, a family of four with an annual income of $24,790 would qualify for reduced-price meals, while a family of the same size that earned $17,420 would qualify for free school meals.
Each year, the state sets a single price for reduced-price meals, based on the level of state and federal aid. Since 1987, those prices have been been 10 cents for breakfast and 20 cents for lunch.
This week's increase follows a 25 percent cut in state aid to the program, slashing the state share to just under $5 million. The federal contribution is projected to remain the same, a minimum of $47 million this year.
In Baltimore, where 61 percent of the students qualify for subsidized meals, officials plan to continue charging 20 cents for a reduced-price lunch and 10 cents for a subsidized breakfast.
Blackshear said the school department may save money by cutting back on expensive items, such as pizza; using prepackaged foods; and relying on part-time, rather than full-time, food service employees.
But state officials still must review whether the city can ignore the state-mandated price, said Sheila G. Terry, chief of nutrition and transportation services for the state Education Department.
"I'm going to have to explore ways to make this viable for them," she said, noting that U.S. rules call for the state to set a uniform price.