Schools Get A Lesson in Lunch Line Economics

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008

New York students will have to settle for pizza without tasty turkey pepperoni topping. In Montgomery County schools, tomato slices were pulled for a few weeks from cafeteria salads in favor of less-expensive carrots or celery.

And in Davie County, N.C., Yoo-hoo drinks, which had been taken off the shelf in favor of healthier options, are back. Sure, officials would rather the kids chugged milk. But each Yoo-hoo sale brings in 36 cents of profit.

Sharp rises in the cost of milk, grain and fresh fruits and vegetables are hitting cafeterias across the country, forcing cash-strapped schools to raise prices or pinch pennies by serving more economical dishes. Some school officials on a mission to help fight childhood obesity say it's becoming harder to fill students' plates with healthy, low-fat foods.

Several Washington area school systems -- including those in Prince George's, Fairfax and Prince William counties and Alexandria -- are proposing to increase lunch prices next school year. For Prince George's schools, it would be the first increase in a decade.

For Montgomery schools, this year's dairy bill is expected to be about $600,000 more than last year. Officials expect to decide in June whether to seek an increase in meal prices.

Becky Domokos-Bays, director of food and nutrition for Alexandria schools, said schools need to raise prices to cover rising food and labor costs but worries that even small increases will strain middle-class families who don't qualify for a price break. The School Board approved a 10-cent increase for students who pay full price, raising the lunch price in elementary school to $2.15 and in middle and high schools to $2.45.

"There's a tipping point somewhere, and I think we're there," Domokos-Bays said. "I don't know how much more families can afford to pay."

School meal programs across the country are run somewhat like restaurants, relying on federal and state subsidies and profits from meal and snack sales and catering services to buy food and pay workers. Rising labor costs, coupled with the recent push for healthier meals, which has meant serving higher-priced foods such as whole grain breads and fresh vegetables, has squeezed budgets. Soaring food prices make it even harder to break even.

Miami-Dade County schools are on track to pay $4.5 million more for milk this year than last year, about a 47 percent increase. Penny Parham, administrative director of the schools' department of food and nutrition, came to Washington last month to urge federal lawmakers to raise subsidies.

"We do not want to serve our students highly refined sugar and flour products, which are more affordable," Parham told the House Education and Labor Committee, "but we are continually being pushed down this path."

Each year Uncle Sam, in an effort to ensure the neediest children get healthy meals, gives schools a little more cash to help feed students. But school officials nationwide say the federal share hasn't kept pace with rising costs. This year, the U.S. Agriculture Department is giving schools $2.47 per lunch to serve free meals to children from the poorest families, up from $2.40 last year, a 3 percent increase. In the same time, milk prices rose about 17 percent and bread nearly 12 percent.

The federal government provides $2.07 per meal for students eligible for a reduced-price lunch and 23 cents a meal for students who pay full price. Schools also receive some foods, including meat, cheese and canned goods, purchased by the federal government.

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