Bigger budget bite

LIHUE — That grumbling isn’t from an empty stomach.

Some local parents say they aren’t happy that the price of Hawaii school lunches could increase in the fall semester.

A proposal being considered by legislators aims to increase meals by 25 cents to $2.75 for high-school students and $2.50 for elementary and intermediate students as a way to offset food and labor costs.

While state officials say meal expenses over the last five years have jumped by more than 17 percent, some Kauai families say the bump would hurt their budgets at home.

“It would make it hard for some of the families,” said Rosheilla Macugay of Lihue. “I have just one child in school, but for some of the other families with more children, it would really add up.”

The increase would raise an additional $1.7 million a year for the state Department of Education’s food services branch. A price hike would be the first increase since 2011. 

“It’s going to be hard for people — especially those on fixed incomes and single parents,” said Elvira Martinez of Kekaha. “It’s already hard to make ends meet. Twenty-five cents might not sound like a lot, but I have two children in school — one in elementary and one in high school — and it adds up.”

But officials say they may have to raise it.

The department has a statutory increase requirement, said Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent overseeing food services, who spoke this week before the finance committee of the Hawaii Board of Education on the proposed measure. 

Carlson noted a 2009 state law that requires meal prices be set at a level “not less than half” the cost of preparing a meal. Each meal costs $5.51 to prepare, officials said. The state serves a total of about 107,000 lunches a day at 255 schools.

Kauai schools serve nearly 100,000 lunches per year. Fifty percent of the 9,400 students are on the free and reduced lunch program. The reduced lunch price is 40 cents.

“Raising meal prices is never an easy decision,” Bill Arakaki, Kauai Complex Area superintendent, wrote in an email. “However, the department must account for increases in inflation and labor costs in order to continue serving meals. We encourage eligible families on Kauai to apply for free and reduced price meal benefits. The department remains committed to finding efficiencies in its school meal program.”

An increase proposed by the Education Department last month would have raised prices by 30 percent over three years. That action was deferred by the education board’s finance chair, Brian De Lima, who asked Carlson to develop plans to reduce costs.

”We’re committed to trying to find efficiencies,” Carlson said. 

The one-time increase was unanimously approved by the finance committee this week, but a full board approval of the recommendation is expected at its next meeting.

“It might be OK, if everything came with the price,” said Debra Isono of Kauai. “Right now, lunch is $2.40 and that’s for the main dish and rice. If you want fruit, carrot sticks, or even a small salad, that’s extra. And the water is extra. Everything adds up.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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