Moore County Public Schools built up meal fund balance over pandemic

RALEIGH — During a recent Moore County Schools Board of Education work session, the topic of the disposition of the district’s school meals balance was raised. 

Apparently, the district’s meals fund balance has built up excess funds of $2.8 million as a result of the free meals paid for by the federal government over the last two years of the pandemic. 

The U.S. government pays $3.49 for qualified free and reduced lunch recipients. Moore County Schools charges around $2.50 for those who don’t qualify for those meals. That means close to $1 for each meal paid for by the federal government had apparently been going into the district’s meal fund.

According to data presented to the board, there were roughly 1.4m meals served in the district in the year prior to the pandemic and around 1.8m meals served during the pandemic. 

The discussion came up during Aug. 1 work session meeting when the topic of increasing student meal prices was brought up. 

Board member David Hensley told North State Journal he believes the excess fund balance should be going to create better quality meals for students qualifying for the free and reduced program. 

The federal waiver provision for free meals for all students ended on June 30, 2022, and districts are now required to return to charging for meals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) reimbursement of eligible free meals in 2019-2020 was $5.18; $1.79 for breakfast and $3.39 for lunch. The reimbursement rate has increased in 2022-23 to $6.69; $2.26 for breakfast and $4.43 for lunch, an increase of 27% for breakfast and 30% for lunch.

The current meal cost in Moore County Schools for K-8 is $3.75; $1.25 for K-12 breakfast, and $2.50 for K-8 lunch. The total cost rises to $4.00 for grades 9-12 since lunch for those grades is priced at $2.75. 

A proposed increase to Moore County Schools’ meal costs bumps up K-12 breakfast and lunch by 50 cents to $1.75 and $3.00, respectively. Lunch for 9-12 jumps 50 cents to $3.25. 

The meals increase combined with the cash resources will fulfill operating expenditures for the upcoming 2022-23 school year. However, another increase in the following school year may be necessary depending on federal reimbursement rate changes, per the district’s Child Nutrition documentation.

The Child Nutrition document shared during the work session states, “Moore County Schools has held the paid meal costs for breakfast and lunch at the same amount for the past six years.”

The Child Nutrition document outlines an increase in costs for labor, consumables, supplies, and equipment over the last two years in comparison to levels seen in the 2019-20 school year. The increase in labor was 25 percent, consumables increased 17 percent, supplies increased 81 percent, and equipment increased 34 percent.

A March 2020 publication by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that “92 percent” of school food authorities reported experiencing challenges due to supply chain disruptions. The most frequently cited challenges include limited product availability, orders arriving with missing or substituted items, and labor shortages. SFAs expect these and other issues to last into SY 2022-23. Public, larger, and rural SFAs, were more likely to report challenges.

“Considering the continuation of supply chain disruptions for the 2022-2023 school year, we are forecasting additional impacts to our labor, consumables, supplies, and equipment costs,” the Child Nutrition document states. 

The forecasted increases include labor at five percent, consumables at 10 percent, supplies at five percent, and equipment at 10 percent.

“The department currently has $460,000 in excess cash resources (fund balance) that have been specifically allocated for cost increases caused by supply chain disruptions,” according to the Child Nutrition document. “This is available to apply to current year operations and will help to prevent the sticker shock that a large increase in meal prices might cause.”

According to the Child Nutrition document, the district “experienced an increase of 27% for what would have been paid meals” during 2021-22 when there was no charge for meals.

By A.P. Dillon

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