Students will be putting up 10 cents more at the lunch line next year at Regional School Unit 18 cafeterias, but that doesn’t mean the district’s nutrition program is in the black.

Because of state pricing caps, increased food and labor costs, and the federal funding that comes up short, the Oakland-based school district is forced to raise money from local tax dollars to pay for the food program’s full costs, superintendent Gary Smith said.

As one part of an effort to close the gap, the school has increased meal costs, slightly for breakfast and 10 cents all around for lunches. Milk prices won’t change.

“As of our audit last year, our lunch program deficit is $376,000, and it’s growing,” Smith said.

The federal government requires schools to keep their nutrition programs running “in the black,” or at least to break even. Smith said the district, which covers students in Oakland, China, Rome, Sidney and Belgrade, has developed a plan to break even in about five years.

While that might not be ideal from the federal standpoint, Smith said, it’s as fast as the district can go if it wants to get its budgets passed.

The budget for the fiscal year 2018 puts about $54,000 more toward the nutrition program, bringing the total to $100,000 — an increase of 120 percent.

Schools lose money on almost every meal they put out. While breakfasts only cost $1.37 in fiscal year 2016, that program has a lower participation rate. Lunches cost the schools $3.95 each — at least $1 more than what the district charges.

The state capped lunch prices for the upcoming year at $3, so the district couldn’t charge more if it wanted to.

The district is “very cautious” about increasing prices, though, Smith said, because they know that hunger affects learning. They also don’t want to see a dip in participation because of increased prices.

“It makes it hard,” he said.

The district also receives less than it uses to produce free and reduced meals. For every free meal, the district gets $3.36 back from the federal government, which is still short of the meal’s cost.

About 35 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, Smith said. That relatively low percentage, when compared with other rural Maine schools, makes it even harder for the district to run in the black.

On top of the financial challenges, the district has to stick to federal nutrition guidelines. For example, schools are allowed to serve only skim milk.

Ultimately, to break even, Smith said they have to subsidize the program with the local budget.

“Those are dollars that we’re not able to put into the classroom,” he said, adding that while he agrees with providing good nutrition for children, many people think schools shouldn’t have to bear that full burden.

“But we don’t have a choice,” he said. “That is what we’re required to do. We’re required to provide a breakfast or lunch program, and we have to meet specific guidelines to do that, and it must break even.”

Smith said he wishes there weren’t so many rules to follow, as the district would be able to provide nutritious food without regulations.

The district is “very fortunate” to have a registered dietitian working as its nutrition program director, he said. The district’s goal is to teach children about good nutrition, Smith said, which is another role schools have had to pick up.

“I don’t think it’s our guidelines that are creating an improved menu over what we offered a few years ago,” but rather the effort of the staff, he said. “While the regulations might provide a framework, it is the local people and the fact that we have a registered dietitian that allows us to offer appropriate foods.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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