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Platteville students eating fewer school lunches
But breakfast, lunch may become free at Neal Wilkins
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The Platteville School Board chewed on the declining number of students eating school lunch Monday night.

That may change substantially next year, however. Under federal regulations, the school district may be providing breakfast and lunch to all Neal Wilkins Early Learning Center students, depending on results of a count Tuesday.

The federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which sets requirements for school lunches, includes a Community Eligibility Provision that school districts offer free breakfast and lunch to all students in a school in which 40 percent of the students’ families have incomes below the federal poverty line.

As of now, according to school district business manager Art Beaulieu, Neal Wilkins is at 39.6 percent, much higher than any other Platteville school.

If Neal Wilkins’ count is more than 40 percent, all Neal Wilkins students — whether their families’ incomes are below the poverty line or not — would receive free breakfast and lunch next school year. The provision would not apply to the school district’s other schools.

The free breakfasts and lunches would be reimbursed by the federal government. “Cost-wise it probably breaks even,” said Beaulieu.

This school year has seen an increase in students eating breakfast — about 30 more per day than in the 2012–13 school year — but a decrease of about 50 lunches being served each day.

About 70 percent of school district students get school lunch, which is more than the state average, but less than past years, when as many as 75 percent of students got lunch.

“When we lose 50 lunches a day over a period of a year, that has put us into deficit mode this year,” said Beaulieu, in large part because “higher food prices have really caught up with us,” particularly milk prices and prices for fruits and vegetables as required by the federal law.

The school district is now paying 24.5 cents per carton of milk, and charging students 25 cents per carton. The profit is to pay for free and reduced students’ milk, for which the school district receives 60 percent reimbursement, but with higher milk prices as part of the escalator clause with the school district’s milk contract,the profit is now “gone,” said Beaulieu.

“We’re working on various things to try to contain our costs, watch our portion control, and stop the decline,” he said.

Beaulieu said the decrease in students’ eating school lunch is not tied to the Westview Elementary School policy of separating children who eat school lunch from children who bring lunch from home because of food allergy concerns. Westview had additional lunch staffing at the beginning of the school year, but that ended.

“The commodities we get from the government basically drive our menus,” he said. “We get lots of chicken nuggets; we get lots of mini-corn dogs.”

Beaulieu said the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act places a top limit on calories, meaning that the school district’s former practice of offering bread and peanut butter to students “is no longer allowed. It’s just too many calories.”

The law also requires that students are served food items — fruit and vegetables, for instance — “even if they don’t eat it,” he said. He added that the schools do not have many leftovers, however.

The school board voted to increase lunch prices for the 2014–15 school year. Children in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade will pay $2.55, up from $2.45. Children from fifth through 12th grades will pay $2.65, up from $2.60.