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Md. Meals Programs Suffering In Schools

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By Lauren C. Williams
Capital News Service
Thursday, May 14, 2009

Maryland's school meal programs are grappling with large financial losses because of increasing food prices, declining meal sales and stagnant federal reimbursement rates, a situation that mirrors a national trend.

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"All school lunch programs are going to be having problems; that seems clear," said Dan Townsend, director of food and nutrition services for Prince George's County public schools.

Maryland public and nonprofit schools participate in the federally funded National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs to provide nutritionally balanced meals to students daily. The programs are administered by the Maryland State Department of Education, which contributes a small portion of the cost.

Almost 75 percent of school districts nationwide this year increased prices for meals and a la carte or vending goods. About two-thirds raised prices on meals solely to make up for lost revenue, according to September data from the School Nutrition Association.

"It's similar to what people are seeing in the supermarket," said Jodi Risse, a registered dietitian and supervisor of food and nutrition services for Anne Arundel County public schools. "Prices went up there and also for us."

Of Maryland's 24 school districts, only Harford, Somerset, Washington and Wicomico counties did not increase meal prices this school year.

In the meantime, the nation's economic difficulties have increased families' dependence on school meal programs. In some counties, more students eligible for free and reduced-price meals are choosing to eat at school "because families are so hard pressed," said Eulalia Muschik, supervisor of food services for Carroll County public schools.

Katie Wilson, president of the national nonprofit School Nutrition Association, said the average cost to produce a meal is $2.92, which is about 35 cents more than the federal reimbursement rate.

Each year, the National School Lunch Act, which expires June 30, automatically increases reimbursement rates to reflect inflation. But that's not enough, said nutrition and health advocates who have called for a significant increase in the federal meal reimbursement.

"Congress needs to step up and look at the reimbursement ratio," said Scott Blackburn, food and nutrition services coordinator for Worcester County public schools. "It's just not meeting" the need.

In more than a third of Maryland schools, more than 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced meals, according to October data from the Maryland State Department of Education.

Students eligible for free lunches come from households with income of up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $35,828 for a family of four. Students eligible for reduced lunch pay no more than 40 cents for lunch and have family incomes of up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $50,986 for a family of four.

School systems maintain a fund balance in which surpluses from previous years are deposited. They can be tapped when the department runs over budget, but if the balance is low or zero, deficits result.

Ginger Hendricks, food service coordinator for the Child Nutrition Program in Caroline County public schools, said she doesn't know what would happen in the event of a serious revenue loss.

"We're not spending any more money than we can help," said Hendricks, who gets applications for free and reduced-price meals as parents lose their jobs. Unemployment in the county jumped to 10.2 percent in February.

"There are things you just cannot cut," she said.


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