The Baltimore school system is raising the price of student lunches to $3 — one of the highest among the nation's large, urban districts — under a plan that also provides free meals to every low-income student.
The price is up from $2.35 for elementary and middle school students and $2.65 for high school students. Some parents could end up spending $117 more this school year under the price increase, which is the fourth in seven years and the largest in that time. Others will save because their children will no longer have to pay the 40 cents charged for a reduced-price meal.
District officials said the new price structure will help increase participation in the lunch program and improve food, while also addressing rising costs associated with new federal guidelines that require more nutritious and expensive ingredients.
Advocates lauded the move to provide free meals to more children, who might not have been able to afford lunch in the past. But some parents said middle-class families in Baltimore could suffer from the increases, particularly if they are barely over the poverty cut-off to receive free lunches.
"I can't imagine a person who has two to three kids having to pay $3 a day," said Roni Ellington, a city parent and recent appointee to the Parent Community Advisory Board. "I think it's very representative of how the whole middle class is treated."
Child advocacy organizations said the district could have avoided imposing a financial burden on families altogether.
While the new plan eliminates the 40-cent charge for at least 4,000 low-income students, the city could have opted into a federal program called "community eligibility," which was designed for districts with high percentages of poor students. Under the program, the federal government would reimburse the district for at least some of the cost of providing lunch to all students, advocates say.
"We are very disappointed that Baltimore city schools are not implementing the community eligibility option," said Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. "It would have meant that every family gets freed up a little bit in their budgets. And we think when you have the opportunity to leverage those dollars for every individual family in the city, it would be well worth it."
Victor De La Paz, the school district's chief financial officer, said that if the system had decided to offer free lunch for all students, it would have lost state funding tied to the number of applications received for free and reduced-price lunches. The community eligibility option would eliminate the applications.
However, other districts around the country that have opted into the program have collected household income data in other ways.
And Madeleine Levin, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, said the community eligibility program has worked in other high-poverty districts.
"We've promoted this in cities like Baltimore because we see its success in places like Chicago and Detroit, where there's concentrations of low-income families," Levin said. "We see participation increasing and more students taking advantage of the free and healthy meals that they need every day."
Shanaysha Sauls, chair of the city school board, which approved the price increase this month, said that while the district has seen a number of improvements in the past few years, such as salad bars and fresh fruit programs, there is still work to do.
She said decisions would be made with school and household budget restraints in mind.
"The board recognizes that the new fee is not a trivial increase," she said in a statement. "What we should start to see is renewed attention to food quality and variety across the district. But we have to do so in a responsible way."
Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, new standards for school lunches include increasing the amount of produce and whole grain on students' lunch trays, and cutting down on sodium and saturated fats.
Since then, school districts across the nation have raised prices to adjust to the rising cost of producing lunches. Baltimore school officials said the district's food costs increased by $1.5 million from 2012 to 2013, and are projected to increase by $2.2 million next year.
"The price [of lunches] hasn't caught up to the cost," De La Paz said.
School systems receive a reimbursement for every student they serve through the free and reduced-price meal program. This year, Baltimore will receive a reimbursement of $3.01 for each free student and $2.59 for those federally eligible for reduced-price meals.
Under the new law, school districts are required to raise their rates 10 cents a year and have the option of raising them by more if they do not exceed the reimbursement they receive from the federal government.
De La Paz said the city's price increase is an attempt to "be comparable to other districts" in Maryland, because "the families in Baltimore who can afford [the increase] very much look like the families from around the rest of the state."
One city parent called the increase "aggressive" for middle-class families.
"There are many families who qualify as middle income and are ineligible for free and reduced-price lunch whose weekly family finances will be impacted by this increased cost, especially if paying for daily lunches for multiple children," said Melanie Hood-Wilson, the parent of a city student who buys lunch a few times a month.
"As a city whose leadership continues to insist that it desires to increase its tax base by increasing its middle-income population, such an aggressive increase feels like one more way in which financial burdens are made quite heavy for middle-income families."
Advocates praised the city's efforts to serve more students at the same time there's a mandate to provide them with better meals.
Anne Sheridan, executive director of the Governor's Office for Children, called the city's plan to provide low-income children with free meals "a big leap of faith that districts are starting to take, and we embrace that leap."
"I see this as part of the school system looking very carefully at all the ways that their kids can have access to adequate nutrition," she said.
By eliminating the 40 cents for its reduced-price students, the system will lose about $160,000, which De La Paz said would be made up through federal reimbursements if the district can raise its participation rate among those students from 52 percent to 60 percent.
"It's a risk we're taking, because more than 300 more kids would eat in the cafeteria every day," he said. "And through the reimbursements, we should at least break even."
Last school year, 84 percent of the city's roughly 85,000 students were eligible for the free and reduced-price meal program, while 13,500 received no subsidy if they paid for lunch.
The city offers free breakfast to every student in the system.
Students become eligible for discounted lunches according to household income levels set by the federal government; for example, a family of four with an annual household income of $43,568 would qualify this year.
According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the median household income in Baltimore was $40,100 between 2007 and 2011.
Across the state, full-price lunches range from $2.50 for elementary school students in Montgomery County to $4 for some high school students in Howard County.
Unlike the city's new structure, most school districts put the costs for elementary, middle and high schools on tiers. For example, in Baltimore County, lunch costs $2.90 for elementary school students, and $3 for middle and high school students.
But a review of lunch prices for large, urban school districts shows that Baltimore's new $3 price is higher.
In New York City — which also eliminated its 25-cent reduced-price fee for students — lunch will cost $1.75 this year, an increase from $1.50. It was the first increase in 10 years.
In Washington, high school students pay $2.50. In Los Angeles, the most students pay is $2. Baltimore's new lunch price is also higher than those in Chicago, Miami, Boston and Denver.
In Maryland districts with a comparable student population, the city's lunch prices also exceed those of Prince George's County, where the highest price is $2.85.
De La Paz said he believes that the other districts' "lower prices exist because of lower quality and smaller portions."
"I think our message is that everyone will now be able to eat in the cafeteria, and paying students will see an increase in quality," he said.
By the numbers
Baltimore is raising its school lunch prices by 65 cents for elementary and middle-schoolers and 35 cents for high school students. Here is how its prices compare with other large, urban school districts around the country:
Baltimore: $3 (all grades)
Chicago: $2.45 (elementary); $2.90 (high school)
Denver: $2.35 (high school)
Los Angeles: $2 (middle and high school)
New York: $1.75 (all grades)
Washington: $2.50 (high school)
Lunch prices in Baltimore area
Anne Arundel: $2.60 (elementary); $2.85 (middle/high)
Baltimore City: $3 (all grades)
Baltimore County: $2.90 (elementary); $3 (middle/high)
Carroll: $2.25 (elementary); $2.50 (middle); $3 (high)
Harford: $1.90 (elementary); $2 (middle/high)
Howard: $2.75 (elementary); $3.25 (middle/high "classic" lunch); $4 (high "signature" lunch)