More fascinating factoids on the economics of school lunch: You might be wondering just how much San Diego Unified actually gets paid for these lunches, since the school district is hoping that serving more lunches will bring in more government revenue.

Here’s how it works: Kids actually pay different amounts for the cafeteria lunch. Food Services Director Gary Petill said that those from the poorest families pay nothing and the federal government gives the school district $2.59 to cover their bill. Those whose families can afford the lunch pay $2.25 and the government ponies up another 29 cents to cover most of the remaining cost, Petill said. (Students punch a number into a keypad so that nobody can tell who is paying for lunch and who eats for free.)

But if a student buys a few similar things a la carte — say a burrito and a sports drink but no vegetables or milk — the school only gets the couple of dollars or so that it costs the student and no extra government money because the meal does not meet government nutritional standards for calcium, iron and other nutrients. Those missing cents add up.

I asked consultant Phil Stover if schools could just raise prices on a la carte items. He said prices were raised recently so schools are reluctant to hike them again.

And what do they have to spend to make that meal?

Petill estimates that food costs about 36 percent of the meal price and salaries and benefits for food service employees cost about 55 percent. The remaining 9 percent covers electricity, paper products, dishwashing and other necessities — and many of those costs have risen annually.


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