Lunch is going to get a bit more expensive at many area schools because of a federal requirement aimed at ensuring money meant for free lunches isn't subsidizing the cost of meals for other students.
And the price increases are expected to continue until districts meet a price threshold established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Five of the six Washington County school districts have voted to raise the price of their lunches by five to 25 cents, at least in part due to a pricing equity provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which reauthorized funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs.
"We're operating in the black and so to have to raise the price just seems unfair," said Wolf Creek Superintendent Bob Caldwell.
The law requires schools to raise their average price by 5 to 10 cents if it is less than the difference between the amount the federal government provides for free lunches and the amount it provides for regular lunches. That price, based on current federal reimbursement rates, is an average of $2.46, although it can vary by district.
Increases would continue in subsequent years until the level is met, school officials said.
According to a USDA fact sheet, the difference can also be covered by non-federal funding. The goal is to keep federal funds for free and reduced lunches from being used to cover a school's paid lunch costs.
Failure to comply could result in a school district losing its free and reduced lunch reimbursements, Warren Local school officials said recently.
Wolf Creek has the lowest lunch price in the county, at $1.50. The school board recently approved increasing the price by a nickel, the lowest amount allowed under the new law.
Caldwell said he hopes the district will not have to continue raising prices. He has been in contact with the office of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, about the matter, he said.
"We have seen politicians change their course of direction when people contact them," Caldwell said. "It's my hope that ... maybe this will be changed."
The USDA is still accepting comments on the rule, but it is in effect, an agency spokeswoman said, adding that changes could be made later.
The Warren school board also opted for the minimum increase, raising elementary school lunch prices from $1.75 to $1.80 and high school prices from $2 to $2.05.
"This is a recommendation against what we would like to do," Warren Treasurer Melcie Wells said at the July board meeting, where the change was approved.
The increase would cost an additional $8.70 a year for a child who buys a school lunch every day, Wells said.
Frontier Local Schools increased its lunch price by a quarter, from $2 to $2.25. Treasurer Frank Antill said the increase will also help offset a shortfall in the district's cafeteria fund, which had a deficit of more than $30,000 at the end of the most recent school year.
Antill said a quarter is also easier to account for and would require students to carry less change.
The Belpre City School District raised lunch prices for middle and high school students by 10 cents and a la carte prices by a quarter but left elementary prices the same.
"Those portions are a little bit bigger at the junior and senior high school," Superintendent Tony Dunn said.
Marietta resident Phil Hall, 37, whose three children attend Belpre schools, called the price increase and the federal requirement behind it "ridiculous."
"It's already hard enough. And, you know, your kids have to eat," he said. "When I was in school, it wasn't hard to go to school and eat lunch."
In Marietta, elementary lunch prices rose by a quarter, while high school prices stayed the same.
Fort Frye's prices have not been changed in the last two years and are already in compliance, said interim Superintendent Dora Jean Bumgarner. The prices are $2 at the elementary schools and $2.25 at the high school.
Wood County Schools recently raised its prices by 15 cents but Beverly Blough, food service director, said the federal requirement was not a major factor. The state of West Virginia mandates lunch price increases based on the costs it calculates, she said.
"(The federal rule) wasn't the total deciding factor but I expect it's going to be more of a focal point in the next school year," she said.