AUGUSTA — A new federal law requires virtually every school to raise lunch prices this fall, and additional mandates are likely to force prices still higher next year.

School districts that charge on average less than $2.46 per meal must raise the price by at least a nickel this year, and keep increasing it until it reaches that threshold, which itself could increase each year.

“I haven’t heard anybody that’s going to go all the way,” said Walter Beesley of the Child Nutrition Services department at the Maine Department of Education. “What I usually hear is a nickel to 25-cent increases.”

Many school districts in the capital area will charge a nickel more.

In those cases, it will cost parents an extra $9 for 180 days of school lunches.

“We’re not anticipating a large increase,” said Barbara Nichols, director of school nutrition for Augusta schools. “In fact, we’re trying to go with the minimum increase. The minimum increase is 5 cents, and so that will be my recommendation, to go with the 5 cents.”

The increase is mandated by the price equity section of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which became law in December.

The law also will set new nutritional guidelines for the 2012-13 school year to reduce sodium and saturated fat in school cafeterias and require more vegetables.

Those new guidelines, being written now, will probably raise costs for schools yet again, Nichols said.

Regional School Unit 2 — Hallowell, Farmingdale, Richmond, Monomouth and Dresden — had already raised high school lunch prices 10 cents before administrators learned of the federal price equity provision. The RSU 2 board also has since raised elementary lunch prices by 5 cents, food service director Betty Stevenson said.

Board members at Regional School Unit 12 — Alna, Wiscasset, Westport, Island, Palermo, Somerville, Whitefield, Windsor and Chelsea — will consider how much to raise prices at their regular meeting on Thursday, Superintendent Greg Potter said.

Schools receive a reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each student meal. But even in combination with the money students pay out of pocket for full-price or reduced-price meals, the reimbursements rarely cover the actual cost of food, leaving schools to cover the balance.

In 2010-11, the reimbursement was 26 cents for a lunch served to a student who paid full price; $2.72 for a lunch served to a student who qualified for free meals.

“Most programs around the state of Maine are not breaking even,” Beesley said. “If it’s $2.72 for a free lunch and costing $3 to put a lunch out, you’re losing money.”

The new law requires the price for a paid lunch to cover the gap between the two reimbursement rates in the previous school year, setting the threshold at $2.46 for this year.

Federal officials want to make sure that none of the reimbursement money for free meals is subsidizing students who pay for lunch.

That does happen in some places, including Augusta schools, Nichols said. Their average cost of producing a meal is $2.80 throughout the district, but it costs less than that at the elementary schools, because the portions are smaller.

“At the elementary level, the reimbursements are enough to cover the meal costs,” Nichols said. “That’s where some of the reimbursement helps subsidize the cost of the full-price meals.”

Augusta charged $1.75 for lunch at the elementary schools last year and $2 at Cony middle and high schools.

RSU 2 manages to cover its food prices through reimbursements and charges to students, but there are still workers to pay, Stevenson noted.

Like many food service departments, Stevenson’s stays in the black in large part because of a la carte sales: beverages, chips, yogurt or other items students can buy individually.

Stevenson is concerned that the upcoming nutritional guidelines will cut into those revenues starting in the 2012-13 school year by limiting the items schools can offer.

“We have a fairly large a la carte selection,” she said. “That may all change with the new regulations. It will cut down on what we’re able to sell.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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