After keeping prices steady for the past three years, members of the Colchester School Board voted earlier this month to raise the district’s meal fee by 25 cents for the upcoming school year.

The 4-1 decision came after superintendent Amy Minor presented two proposals: subsidizing the meal program with $50,000 from the voter-approved budget or upping breakfast prices to $2.25 for students and $2.75 for teachers and adults, and raising lunch prices to $3.50 for students in K-5, $4 for grades 6-12 and $5 for teachers and adults.

Colchester school lunch prices were the highest in the state last year, Minor noted.

Still, district business and operations manager George Trieb said the standalone program has struggled to stay cost-neutral in recent years.

“We tried to do the best we could to still stay at zero, to break even, without leaning on the school board to ask for more money,” Trieb said in a subsequent interview. “But there gets to be a point where you really have to.”

Steve Davis, director of nutrition and food services, said numerous factors contributed to the struggle, including a relatively low percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced meals.

District-wide, about 461 students qualify for free lunch, while 134 qualify for the reduced rate, totaling approximately 30 percent of the student population, Minor said.

Many federal dollars are distributed to schools with much larger proportions of needy families, Davis said. CSD does not qualify for a funded summer food program, for example, because it doesn’t have more than 50 percent of students enrolled in the free and reduced meal program during the school year.

“We want to feed these kids. I’d like to feed every student in the district, that’s our goal,” Davis said. “But we have to make it so we can cover our costs.”

The challenge has been compounded by more stringent meal guidelines and aging equipment. A 30-year-old industrial dishwasher recently broke; the replacement costs about $30,000, Trieb said.

Complicating matters, Trieb and Davis said trends show participation tends to dip when school meal prices increase, taking several months to return to original levels.

But while Colchester’s lunch prices topped the statewide price charts, last year’s breakfast charges were among the lowest, Trieb said.

Implemented at Colchester Middle School last school year, a breakfast cart rounded out the morning meal program and prompted a 64 percent increase in participation.

That installation earned the district the “Breakfast After the Bell” award, funded by Hunger Free Vermont and the New England Dairy Council, Minor said. The achievement came with a $2,300 grant, which Davis used to purchase a more robust cart for the upcoming school year.

Though eventually voting with the majority, school board member Lindsay Cox expressed concern about the timing of the price hike, wondering why a decision couldn’t have been made earlier in the year.

“Families do save up to set up an account for their student,” Cox said. “For us to decide at the beginning of August and for families to get a letter in two weeks saying the meal prices are going to be increased is potentially a hardship for those families who haven’t had a decent amount of time to plan for it.”

Echoing her point, board member Craig Kieny cast the lone dissent.

Trieb told the Sun it’s near impossible to determine the upcoming year’s need sooner since the fiscal year ends on June 30. Even so, he said he understood their concerns.

“We’re in the middle. We’re not a wealthy district, and we’re not a district that has a lot of free and reduced, and those in the middle get pinched,” Trieb said.

At the prior school board meeting, trustees approved an updated procedure to provide meals to students with insufficient funds and for collecting unpaid debt.

The review was prompted by an order from the USDA, requiring all schools to distribute a written plan to families at the start of the school year, which the district had already fulfilled.

Per that protocol, students in kindergarten through grade 5 are allowed to run a negative charge of up to $16.25; students in grades 6-12 can run a negative charge of up to $18.75. The balance works out to about five meals, the district memo said.

Students with a higher balance are served an alternate meal: a cheese sandwich, fruit or vegetable and milk.

In the meantime, Davis said staff work with a student’s classroom teacher or principal to come up with a plan in addition to contacting families directly.

The policy doesn’t apply to students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, or those who have “cash in hand” at the time of purchase, according to the procedure.

Davis said cafeteria staff rarely address students directly but acknowledged the alternative meal may draw unwanted attention from their peers.

“I do feel sometimes it can make them feel uncomfortable. We try to avoid that as much as possible,” Davis said. “But there is a certain point where you’re kind of between a rock and a hard place.”

Trieb said he and Davis keep that scenario in mind every year when determining whether to raise meal prices.

“Students are very smart. They see these things, and they understand,” Trieb said. “Our job is to have some sort of procedure in place to control that but to still be compassionate. At the end of the day, there are kids behind the decisions.”

Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the new meal fees for the upcoming school year. Breakfast will cost $2.25 for students not eligible for meal benefits, not $2.75. Students in grades K-5 not eligible for meal benefits will pay $3.50 and grades 6-12 will pay $4. We regret the error. 

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