WOBURN - The School Committee recently directed Assistant Superintendent for Finance Joseph Elia to more equitably distribute across all grade levels a proposed lunch price hike.

During the school board's latest virtual meeting via video-conferencing service Zoom, Elia advocated for an across-the-board increase for school cafeteria meals to $3.25 in order to ensure the school system complies with federal minimum pricing mandates.

According to Elia, he proposed a larger than necessary pricing increase in order to guarantee school officials won't be revisiting the matter again in a year.

"Based on the calculation we have to go through with the Department of Education and Nutrition, our average price right now is $2.67. We could go up to $3.10 [and come into immediate compliance], but my gut tells me we'd have to revisit this again next year and raise prices again," the assistant superintendent explained.

Ultimately, the School Committee rejected that across-the-board increase and in a 6-to-1 vote directed central office administrators to recalculate the price adjustments so that the lowest increase possible is evenly borne by lunch program participants.

The district has not adjusted cafeteria prices since the spring of 2015, the last time Woburn was at risk of running afoul of minimum pricing requirements.

School Committee member Chris Kisiel, who heads the Woburn Business Association (WBA), resisted Elia's recommendation on the grounds that families of elementary and middle school families would see too steep of a year-over-year jump in costs.

Presently, Woburn has a three-tiered lunch rate that is grouped by school levels. Elementary school lunches cost $2.50, while middle school pupils now pay $2.75 per meal. At WMHS, the price of a school lunch is presently $3.

According to Kisiel, who has become intimately familiar with the economic chaos being unleashed by the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many household heads in Woburn now more than ever need every financial break they can get.

For that reason, the School Committee member urged the assistant superintendent to determine how to evenly distribute the price hike to get to the minimum $3.09 pricetag.

"We're talking about 75 cents per day for the elementary [level]. Is there a reason we're doing this across the board?" asked Kisiel. "I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but it adds up. If we can go to the lowest possible price point and make that work [I'd urge us to do so]. Is it a huge deal to do that math?"

"I'm telling you, this is a very, very tough year for a lot of families. There's a lot of people [out of work and now] eating through their savings. So I don't want to sit here and say, 'Oh, what's another 50 cents?'" the WBA executive director added.

Generally agreeing with Kisiel was School Committee member Patricia Chisholm, who is reticent to approve any cost increase that disproportionately hits young children and adolescents. Though the district as a matter of policy will never refuse a child a school lunch due to an inability to pay for a meal, Chisholm argued some younger kids might still quietly go without a meal due to financial insecurity at their home.

The veteran school board member contended high schoolers, who are old enough to make their own lunches and can legally work to pay for school lunches, should be asked to bear a fair burden of the pricing increase.

"My heart is broken when we have kids going to school without food. High school kids, at least they can work and make a sandwich," said Chisholm.

Mandated increase

Ironically, the last time the school district hiked lunch prices in 2015, Elia had proposed raising rates to the lowest possible pricing point, but he was directed to instead formulate a larger lunch price increase to ensure the matter wouldn't have to be revisited year after year.

Specifically, under the federal government's free-and-reduced lunch program, heads of household in Woburn whose income is at or near the poverty level can apply for steeply discounted school meals for their children. Presently, according to guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a four-person household would qualify for reduced-cost meals if earning $47,638 or less each year, while lunches would be provided for free to children whose parents earn $33,475 or less.

Under the USDA's National School Lunch Program (NSLP), those who qualify for reduced lunches will pay somewhere between 30 and 40 cents per meal in the continental United States.

As a free-and-reduced lunch program participant, Woburn is reimbursed at a predetermined rate by the federal government for all meals it provides to qualifying students.

Every year, Elia has previously explained, the federal reimbursement rate is adjusted to account for inflation. As a result of those changing reimbursement rates, Woburn has every so often found itself in a position where the meal reimbursement rate actually exceeds the amount the district is charging for lunches.

As a result, the district must increase prices to ensure that the average school lunch charge meets that minimum reimbursement rate.

"I'm not proposing this. I don't even believe we should be charging [anything] for lunch," stressed the assistant superintendent.

According to Elia, prior to 2015 — the last time the city hiked lunch prices — Woburn was constantly hiking its meal prices in order to account for the minimum pricing mandate. However, every time the district did so, Woburn's cafeteria service provider would notice the numbers of pupils buying lunches drop.

To bring more stability to the program, the assistant superintendent was directed in 2015 to propose a larger than necessary increase, which would ensure pricing remained within federal parameters for the foreseeable future.

During the latest debate over his across-the-board price hike to $3.25, Elia, frustrated that the policy position had swung in an entirely new direction, explained he had simply repeated that exercise.

"This should take care of this problem for at least the next two years," said the assistant superintendent. "You can't delay this process. It has to be done by the start of the next school year. But I can go back and see what the lowest level we can charge."

School Committee member Dr. John Wells, the lone dissenter in the recent vote, told his colleagues that Elia's attempts to stabilize pricing for multiple years made the most sense.

Wells also tried to dispel the notion that financially struggling families would be hurt by the cost increase, as the district's overall lunch program policy includes multiple mechanisms by which parents can seek financial relief — even if they don't qualify for the free-and-reduced lunch program.

"The lunch program was designed to aid students who come from economically disadvantaged families. No student is required to buy a school lunch," he said. "The important thing [to note] is that school lunches will be provided to kids who meet the economic qualifications."

Ultimately, the proposal to increase lunch prices across the board to $3.25 failed in a 4-3 vote. Chisholm, Kisiel, School Committee Chair Ellen Crowley, and School Committee member Michael Mulrenan all opposed the idea.

Wells was subsequently the only board member to vote against the directive to equitably distribute across all grade levels the lowest possible lunch increase to comply with federal mandates.

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