By Greg Gelpi
Eating lunch in the southern crescent just got a little more expensive. As thousands of children returned to school in Henry County returned to school this month, they were hit with price hikes for school lunches, while students in Clayton weren't.
In Henry, as much as 25 cents was tacked on the price of school fare.
"Have you been in a grocery store lately," asked Henry County Schools' Director of Nutrition Judy Hogg.
Price hikes in food, labor and transportation, Hogg said, make school meals more costly to serve.
But the trend is nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program, reports spikes in the price of milk, cheese and meat products. While typical food inflation is around 3 percent, milk prices are up 27 percent from one year ago, it says.
"One month, milk went up 2 cents a carton," Hogg said. "But it's going down now." And at 20,000 meals per day, that translates into an unexpected $8,000 a month.
Hogg said Henry Schools were able to get by without raising prices for two school years, "but over a two year period, things go up."
Between federal subsidies and the cash price for meals, Hogg said they are battling to keep the price the same?$1.65 for a full-paid student meal in elementary schools, $1.75 at middle and high schools?at least for next year.
"But you never know what's going to happen with the economy and what's going to happen with the federal government," she said.
Alisa Brown has two children in Henry Schools, one at Luella High and one at Luella Middle, but said the price increase wasn't alarming, or even questionable to her.
"I can't complain if it's 20 cents (more) for lunch as long as they're getting lunches," Brown said.
Last year was her children's first year in Henry Schools. Brown said they came from Forsyth County, where school lunch prices increased regularly.
But lunch prices for students in Clayton County haven't increased since 1997, said school lunch program coordinator Micki Gaudry.
This year, Clayton Schools went up on adult lunches by 15 cents per meal, but have managed to keep the price of student meals at a steady rate, and even keep the reduced-price meals 10 cents below the national cap of 40 cents.
She said it's a tricky proposition to raise school meal prices "because there's always a backlash."
Because some may feel the price too high, they stop eating "so you can't count on the 15 cents on every adult lunch you're used to serving," she said.
School districts are not allowed to run a profit and are limited in the supply of cash on hand. They're only allowed to have a maximum of three months operating costs before having to return government subsidies, Gaudry said. The cost of the meal is determined by the actual production price, less the government subsidy.
Using government commodities such as surplus fruits and vegetables and meat products, as well as commercial food vendors who leverage quantity discounts, school lunch directors can somewhat control their expense. Clayton County uses both commercial vendors and government commodities, which Gaudry said are often name-brand products. Henry Schools do the same.
Henry Schools get 21 cents per meal in subsidies from the government on a full-priced student meal. Add that to the student's paid price, "and we only get $1.86 to produce a meal," Henry's lunch director Hogg said.
Nationally, some districts have raised lunch prices by as much as $1, the Associated Press reports.
Lunch prices at one California school district spent 12 years at $2 and jumped to $3 this year.
But Clayton and Henry officials don't expect the prices to be that high in the near future. Hogg said she expected the current price to hold steady at least for the next two school years, while Clayton's Gaudry said slight yearly subsidy increases should keep that district's prices down. "We just try to make ends meet," Hogg said.