A surge in students choosing a la carte meals over traditional hot lunch is having a drastic impact on school district budgets.
When students purchase fewer traditional meals, the districts receive less money from the federal government for “reimbursable meals,” according to local school officials.
Salem has seen a $40,000 drop so far this year and that’s after a $71,000 decrease last year, according to Superintendent Michael Delahanty.
In Londonderry, the district expects to see about $14,000 less in government reimbursement money, school business administrator Peter Curro said.
It’s a trend being seen nationwide, Curro said. The district received $284,000 last year, he said.
The adoption of tougher federal school lunch guidelines a few years ago is having a negative effect on districts as more students chose a la carte foods or bring their own lunch instead of eating traditional school meals, the school officials said.
“We’ve been in the red for the last three years in a row,” Curro said.
Districts are only reimbursed if students choose fruit, vegetables and foods with protein, Curro said. Meal reimbursement rates vary. Traditional lunches cost between $1.25 and $3.
“They either don’t want the apple or they feel bad if they have to throw it out,” he said.
The more stringent federal guidelines have led to higher food costs and resulted in smaller meals being served, he said.
Students will buy more a la carte foods or just bring in their own lunch to make sure they have enough to eat, Curro said. There’s been a 20 percent decrease in students buying hot lunch, he said.
Salem has also seen a drop in participation, Delahanty said. Food costs are up about 9 percent over a year ago, he said, compounding the problem.
“Our reimbursable meals are down fairly substantially,” Delahanty told the School Board on Tuesday. “It has to do with the food choices they are making — what they are accepting on their trays and what they are not accepting.”