Schools boost meal prices for low-income pupils

September 05, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Squeezed by state budget cuts, the Baltimore school system this year doubled the cost of reduced-price lunches to 40 cents.

The city, which bucked the state-wide move toward higher prices last year, left the cost of a reduced-price breakfast at 10 cents.

The increase, which took effect Sept. 1, was the first in five years.

School officials say the increase is the direct result of July's $507,000 cut in state aid to the school meal program and last October's $600,000 cut.

The increase affects only those low-income families that qualify for reduced-price meals, but not those poor enough to receive free breakfast and lunch.

For example, a family of four with an income of up to $18,135 qualifies for free school meals; a family of four with an income of up to $25,808 qualifies for reduced-price meals.

Other students pay the full-lunch price of $1 in elementary schools and $1.25 in middle and high schools. A full-price breakfast costs 55 cents.

The school system also increased the cost of a la carte milk by|| TC nickel, to 30 cents for a half-pint, the first increase since 1981 despite national price increases.

Each day last school year, Baltimore schools served about 3,800 reduced-price lunches and about 150 reduced-price breakfasts. About 48,000 students received free lunches and 12,000 got free breakfasts.

Leonard U. Smackum, head of the school meal program, said the school system absorbed last year's cut in state aid, fearing that a mid-year price increase would drive half of the participants from the program.

This year, however, the school system was unable to find enough internal savings to absorb July's cut and avoid a price increase, he said.

Even so, Mr. Smackum predicted that only about 20 percent of students would drop out of the reduced-price meal program, and most of those are likely to come back "because they realize it's a good buy."

But the increase is likely to force some people out of the program, warned Eileen Gillan, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Food Committee.

For a single mother with three children, the increase amounts to an extra $12 a month.

"That doesn't sound like much, but it's an awful lot for someone who's living from paycheck to paycheck," said Ms. Gillan. "What it means is that some parents have to choose between letting their kids get breakfast or lunch. They can't afford both."

That could hurt the performance of those children in school, she said, since "hungry children just can't learn."

If the experience of other jurisdictions is any guide, however, the price increase may have little effect on the number of children who participate in the reduced-price meal program.

Virtually all jurisdictions but Baltimore doubled their prices for subsidized meals after a round of state budget cuts last year, said Betty Ledbetter, a state education official involved in child nutrition.

"The changes in participation were insignificant," she said.

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