The Elk River School District has hit upon a unique way to eat the increased cost of school lunches while allowing students’ families to earn a little extra credit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently ordered the district to raise its lunch prices by 10 cents to meet the federal minimum or possibly lose $1.8 million in federal reimbursement for the meals.

The district feared a backlash from parents. So to compensate, the district will eliminate its current $1.95 credit-card fee for student lunch accounts at the start of the 2013-14 school year, when elementary and secondary school lunch prices will increase to $2.50 and $2.60, respectively.

“The overall increase will be about $2 a month, but eliminating the $1.95 credit-card fee will balance that out” for families that pay by credit card, said Greg Hein, the district’s executive director of business services.

Hein said he called the USDA in Chicago after the district was notified of the mandated price increase. He knew the district could not afford to lose federal participation in its lunch program, so it would have to comply.

“If you’re trying to hold down costs, why should you have to raise prices?” he said. “Fortunately, we have a pretty healthy fund balance and we can afford to make the credit-card fee offer.”

This is the third consecutive year that the district’s school board has increased student meal prices, at the USDA’s directive. All school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program must price lunches accordingly. This year, the USDA directed school districts that were charging less than $2.52 for lunches to increase those prices. The mandate included the Elk River district.

“They keep moving the finish line,” said Julee Miller, general manager of Sodexo, which supplies student meals for the district.

Hein said the district won’t know until the fall if families are taking advantage of the waiving of the credit-card fee.

“A 10 cent increase per meal doesn’t sound like much,” Hein said. “Unless you have five kids. It adds up.”