School meals in Tacoma will cost more next year

The cost of meals for students in Tacoma schools will increase next year.

The Board of Directors of Tacoma Public Schools voted Thursday to increase prices of breakfasts and lunches by 25 cents starting in the 2019-20 school year.

Costs of K-12 breakfasts will increase from $1.65 to $1.90. Costs of lunches will increase from $2.75 to $3 for grades K-5 and from $3 to $3.25 for grades 6-12.

The cost of free and reduced lunches will remain the same. Milk prices will also remain the same.

The average prices of lunches should be around $3, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Tacoma school lunches average $2.86, triggering a mandatory price increase of at least 9 cents, district officials said.

“Our recommendation is 25 cents.The reason why we’re not recommending a 9-cent increase is that we want to be fair to the community and the board in that we’re not asking annually for an increase in the cost per meal,” said Chris Williams, chief operations officer for the district.

If the district does not make the increase, the USDA won’t reimburse for subsidized paid student lunches.

“Without making a price increase now of at least 9 cents per meal, the district would have to use local levy funds to help pay for student meals,” the district stated.

The increase is expected to take in $175,000 to the district’s budget if participation remains the same.

The price increase will keep up with inflationary costs of food and labor.

It’s the first time the district has increased its meal costs in six years — the longest point of time so far, officials said. The last increase raised prices by 25 cents in 2013.

In Tacoma, meal prices increased by 65 percent between 1989 and 1999, 52 percent between 1999 and 2009 and 6 percent between 2009 and 2018.

Currently, Tacoma’s meal costs are lower than surrounding districts. K-5 lunches cost $3.35 in Puyallup, $3 in Federal Way and $3.25 in Seattle, compared to Tacoma’s $2.75.

Current Meal Comparisons.jpg
A chart shows the current cost of meals at Tacoma Public Schools and how they compare with prices at other districts. June 2019 Tacoma Public Schools

The cost increase will allow the district to look at different, better quality products, officials said. The district is also looking at hiring an external nutritionist to look at the quality of food.

The board of directors spoke of meal debt concerns at Thursday’s meeting. A new law passed by state legislature last year prohibited districts from denying students meals, regardless of their ability to pay, causing a spike in meal debts across the state. In November, the Tacoma was facing $77,000 in meal debt charges.

“The lunch debt issue is something that’s troublesome for a lot of these families. We don’t want to shame anyone into not getting their lunches, of course,” Director Enrique Leon said during the meeting.

Williams said the increase in meal cost is not related to the mounting meal debt and that the district now alerts parents through email, text phone calls of outstanding meal debt.