With the price of school lunches rising for the second year in a row, and more increases promised, could a kitchen in every school become a thing of the past?

With the price of school lunches rising for the second year in a row, and more increases promised, could a kitchen in every school become a thing of the past?

The "master kitchen" concept was discussed briefly at the Worthington Board of Education meeting on Monday night as the board approved a 15-cent increase in the cost of lunch for the coming school year.

Each Worthington elementary, middle, and high school (except for Linworth) has its own kitchen and cafeteria.

"With declining enrollment, I wonder if on-site kitchens isn't a luxury we can't afford," said board member David Bressman.

He said that many districts have centralized kitchens from which lunches are delivered to schools.

Assistant superintendent Paul Cynkar said the idea had never been given a close look, but that the staff of the food service department is always looking at ways to save money.

Increasing costs of food, transportation, and labor are contributing to the need to continually raise the cost of lunch at all Worthington schools and breakfast at the 13 schools where it is served, according to school officials.

The board has a policy to increase the price gradually, rather than to increase it by a large amount in one year, Cynkar said.

This year, the cost will increase from $2.35 to $2.50 for elementary students; from $2.60 to $2.75 at the middle and high schools; and from $3.25 to $3.50 for adults.

The price of breakfast will increase from $1.35 to $1.40.

The federal reimbursement rate for lunches for students who qualify for free lunches was $2.47 last year. The rate of reimbursement has not been announced for the 2008-09 school year.

Currently, 18.1 percent of Worthington students qualify for free lunch. Students qualify on the basis of their family income.

The number who qualify is probably higher, since high school students tend to not apply for free or reduced lunch prices, said curriculum director Jennifer Wene.

The number who qualified for free lunch in Worthington increased 22 percent last year, and 16 percent the year before.

"It is not just a trend in Worthington, it is in other suburbs as well," she told the board.

At Slate Hill Elementary, 41 percent of students receive a federally-subsidized free lunch. The percentage is more than 30 percent at three other schools.

Superintendent of Schools Melissa Conrath agreed that a master kitchen should be considered in the long run, but that the board needed to raise the price for the coming year.

Salaries in the food service department have increased 3.5 percent in the past year, and contract negotiations will determine increases in the coming year, according to a memo presented to the board.

In January 2008, medical and dental benefits increased 28 percent. An additional 20 percent or more in anticipated in January 2009.

Food costs have continued to increase, with a conservative increase of 8 percent expected in the coming year, according to the memo.