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School breakfast and lunch prices will increase slightly for students in Missoula County Public Schools in the 2019-20 school year.

The MCPS board of trustees approved a 25-cent increase at the board meeting on May 14.

“Twenty-five cents doesn’t seem like a lot but it adds up, especially when you consider multiple meals and have more than one kid,” said Josephine Wright, a cafeteria cook and cashier at Franklin Elementary School.

The new cost of meals for students in grades K-5 is $1.75 for breakfast and $2.75 for lunch. For students grades 6-12, breakfast will cost $2 and lunch will cost $3. The cost of reduced-price meals will stay the same.

“It seems like a small change but I think it’ll be a big difference because we have a lot of kids who are in the middle where the families make too much to qualify for assistance but don’t actually make enough to cover meals,” Wright said.

The district last raised rates by 25 cents in 2015. Since then, inflation has increased the cost of food and labor and resulted in annual losses within the district’s Food and Nutrition Services.

“I understand where the increase is coming from,” Wright said. “We haven’t increased prices in years and I don’t know anything that hasn’t gone up in price. I just know that it’s going to affect a lot of families.”

MCPS is also discontinuing a universal free meal program that provided free breakfast and lunch to all students at a number of middle and elementary schools, regardless of students’ eligibility for free or reduced priced meals.

MCPS piloted the free breakfast and lunch program, known as a "Community Eligibility Provision" (CEP), at eight schools over the last five years.

“It was to help schools see if the reimbursement rates that they got from the Department of Agriculture helped them, and it's largely a financial decision because we’re not getting enough reimbursement to cover the cost of offering all those meals,” MCPS Communications Director Hatton Littman said.

Franklin, Hawthorne, Lowell and Russell elementary schools, and C.S. Porter Middle School will discontinue the program at the end of this school year. Chief Charlo and Paxson elementary schools and Meadow Hill Middle School stopped offering the CEP program at the end of the 2018-19 school year.

Under the CEP program, families were not required to apply for free or reduced-price meals because all students were able to eat for free.

However, parents of students in all MCPS schools will now have to apply to receive free and reduced-price meals. Applications can be found on the district’s website.

Stacey Rossmiller, the supervisor for Food and Nutrition Services, said that any family can apply for free and reduced meal benefits.

“I have a lot of people who will look at the income guidelines and say, ‘Well, I make just a little bit too much, I’m not going to qualify.’ I always encourage people if you think you are even close to it or remotely close to it, apply,” Rossmiller said.

The free and reduced-price meal applications are mailed to every student household in the district in August each year, but families can apply at any time during the school year, and can even be reimbursed for meals retroactively.

Sharon Redfield, a cafeteria worker at Franklin who supervises students at meals and makes sure all kids are eating, said she expects there to be more hungry students as meal prices increase next year and the CEP program goes away.

On Wednesday, students at Franklin filled trays with “Italian dippers” (like pizza sticks) or crustless PB&J sandwiches, cartons of milk or juice, and an array of fruits and veggies like carrots, apples and oranges.

Each week students are fed from a rotating menu that includes hamburgers, tacos, whole-grain chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese, and whole-grain pizza made in the district’s Central Kitchen.

Breakfast options range from a yogurt bar to pancakes, waffles, and breakfast burritos. On Friday, students get home-baked items from Central Kitchen such as cinnamon rolls (sans icing to keep up with requirements for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010).

Wright said that as a parent with two kids in the district, she can understand not wanting to spend more money. On the other hand, she feels like families get a “pretty good value for what they’re spending.”

The district anticipates that the increased costs will bring in $85,000 to Food and Nutrition Services.

“The decision to go off CEP as well as the decision to increase the lunch prices are decisions to balance the budget of the nutrition program because we can’t keep running it in a deficit,” Littman said.

The increased meal rates also help pay for operations costs for Food and Nutrition Services, which operate under an enterprise fund rather than the general fund that covers similar operational costs for the district.

“The wages that we pay, any equipment replacement or repairs, truck replacement or repairs, work comp insurance, all of that, we’re responsible,” Rossmiller said.

Although household income determines a student’s eligibility for free or reduced-price meals, the district is committed to making sure that students are well-fed.

Rossmiller said that regardless of the situation, hungry students will always be provided with meals.

“If you look at how much outstanding debt is out there for owed lunches, you will know that we never tell a kid they can’t have anything to eat,” Rossmiller said.

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