School Board Raises Meal Prices

By Rio Bauce, Special to the Planet
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:04:00 AM

In response to state budget cuts, the Berkeley Board of Education voted unanimously at its May 27 meeting to increase the price of all school lunches by 25 cents effective July 1. The price increase would not affect students who receive free or reduced-price lunches. 

“We are in dire budgetary times,” said School Board Vice President Karen Hemphill. “Over the years, BUSD has subsidized the program in order to get quality food. While we think it is important to continue to support the program, we must offer a modest increase to sustain it.” 

Currently, the lunch rates are $3 for elementary schools, $3.50 for middle schools, and $4 at Berkeley High School. The new rates would be $3.25, $3.75, and $4.25 respectively. In 2005, the board also approved a 25-cent increase in rates for school lunches. 

In Oakland Unified School District, lunch prices are $2.25 for elementary schools and $3 for middle schools and high schools. 

Although district Director of Nutritional Services Ann Cooper said in April that the current program would be fully self-sustaining, new budget projections require a fee increase in order to avoid using money from the district’s General Fund. 

According to Cooper, who is leaving her post at the end of this month for the Boulder Unified School District in Colorado, the fee increase will reduce dependence on the General Fund. 

“The budget for the 2009-10 school year has no contribution from the General Fund,” said Cooper. “Even though a typical lunch costs us $4.75, every little bit helps. We didn’t make it more, because we are sensitive to the state of the economy and even the 25 cents seemed a lot to some families.” 

The board also voted to decrease the nutritional services budget by $234,290. Cooper says that the effects won’t damage the quality or quantity of the food. 

“We are responding to the cuts by being more efficient and controlling inventory,” said Cooper. “At our 16 sites, we are going to make sure that we do not waste any food and that we do not overproduce. We will also have to cut one full-time position and cut some hours. The quality of the food will remain the same. We also are trying to increase participation at the schools.” 

Marni Posey, manager of nutritional services, said the Chez Panisse foundation would continue helping the district. 

“While the foundation has never really provided funding for the program, they did provide funding for Ann’s position,” said Posey. “However, they will continue to help us with grant-writing for the program.” 

In order to be profitable, the district has increased its efforts to encourage student participation in the lunch program. Cooper anticipates a 7.8 percent increase in school lunch sales for the upcoming school year, which would bring a $35,000 net revenue increase. 

“We have done a lot of outreach and met with the parent-teacher associations,” said Cooper. “We already have next year’s free- and reduced-price-lunch applications ready and are planning to hand them out over the summer to increase participation in the state programs.” 

Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan said that the district has stepped up its marketing efforts to parents. 

“We have been placing banners at the schools, Ann Cooper has been sending letters home, and we have been handing out flyers,” said Coplan. 

While elementary schools have been showing modest increases in participation, according to Cooper, Berkeley High School has been slow to show progress. 

“It’s been very difficult to raise participation at the high school,” said Cooper. “I don’t think it’s necessarily about the food. It’s that students have the option to go off-campus, but we will continue to try.” 

With Cooper leaving the district, Nutrition Services Manager Marni Posey and Executive Chef Bonnie Christensen will take over the reins.  

“Ann has done a tremendous job,” said Posey. “She has mentored Bonnie and I to run the program without her in the past year. There should be no noticeable changes in the current program.” 

Cooper agrees that the nutritional services department can continue without her presence. 

“We have a really great team,” said Cooper. “The entire team will move this forward. The big obstacle is to raise participation. Every family should consider how having their child eat at school would benefit the program.” 

While Posey says that the focus of the past year has been on the $8 million construction of a dining hall at King Middle School, she says that the changes have been very positive. 

“It opened on the first day of school,” said Posey. “We moved the central cooking facility from Jefferson School to King. It was a complete change for the workers, but a great success.” 

Cooper made a plea to the community to support this program as much as possible. 

“What we really need is to have more kids eat, even if it is just once more a week,” said Cooper. “That would really help our numbers and our program.”