By Kelly Burch
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The Newburyport School Committee is continuing to try to support the school lunch program amid decreased participation and increased cost.
On Monday, the School Committee was deadlocked on whether to increase the lunch price by 25 cents. The committee will revisit that issue in the winter, but for now the price of a school lunch will stay the same, and the school district will focus on bolstering participation before raising prices.
“We need to find ways of bringing kids back to eating at school,” School Committee vice chairman Cheryl Sweeney said.
The lunch program is floundering amid strict new federal and state guidelines for school lunches. Under the guidelines, lunches must meet certain health criteria in order for the school system to be reimbursed for their cost. However, that has created two issues, Sweeney said. Some students do not like the new, healthier lunches. In addition, in order for the school district to receive reimbursement for the program, a student must accept all parts of the lunch — he cannot choose to leave behind an apple or a piece of cheese.
“This has created a significant amount of waste,” said Sweeney, “and there is nothing we can do.”
Superintendent Marc Kerble has seen firsthand students’ opinions on the new lunches. “I was walking in the middle school, and one of the students stopped me to say ‘bring back hotdogs,’” he recalled. “Hotdogs are a big hit.”
Although hotdogs may be a hit with the kids, under new federal and state guidelines schools are forced to serve more nutritious meals in order to receive funding. Sweeney said that this leaves the district with two options — both of which it plans to pursue.
“Next year, we are going to offer more education about nutrition,” she said. The school district will also work with the lunch provider to develop healthy options that are also appealing to kids.”
However, the most pressing issue is getting more students to participate in the program. In the 2011-2012 school year, 876 meals were served each day on average in Newburyport schools. Last year, that number dropped to 790.
“We have to work on that,” Sweeney said.
Last year, the school lunch program cost the district $87,000. Raising the price of a school lunch by 25 cents would have created an extra $27,000 in revenue. However, School Committee members were wary of pushing more students away from the program.
“The prevailing wisdom is that we need to bring back participation first, then raise the price,” Kerble said.
In addition to the families that pay for school lunches, many residents qualify for free or reduced lunches based on their incomes, Sweeney said.
“Not everyone who is qualified is taking advantage of that,” she said. If more people who were qualified participated in that program, the district would receive funding for more lunches.
Newburyport is not alone as it struggles to adjust to the new lunch guidelines.
“There is very little leeway in the mandates,” Sweeney said. “Other districts are having the same issues.”
The School Committee will continue to explore ways to increase participation in the school lunch program, and will revisit the issue of a price increase during the winter.
“That gives us enough time to evaluate the changes,” Sweeney said.