The number of children eating school lunches in Prince George's has dropped by 25 percent since last year. Food Service Director C. Anthony DiMuzio fears the county schools' program, which is meant to be self-supporting, will lose between $300,000 and $500,000 this year. He can't remember the last time the lunch service lost money, he said, adding that it's never lost this much.

"It's not a pretty picture, quite frankly," DiMuzio told the school board last week. Lower participation will raise costs, he said, which eventually will be passed on to the children. The higher costs will mean fewer children taking part, so costs will rise again, he said.

The schools' food program now has a "fund balance" of about $1 million from profits reaped in earlier years. At the current rate, DiMuzio said, that fund will vanish in two or three years.

While the number of children in county schools dropped 5 percent this year, higher lunch prices are blamed for most of the participation drop. Lunch costs rose 20 cents in September; there were substantial cutbacks in the number of children given free and reduced-priced lunches. The number of children eating reduced-priced lunches for 40 cents dropped 42 percent in October.

"The long-term effect is that you're going to have a smaller program," DiMuzio said after the meeting. It will make it increasingly likely that chidren "don't get hot, nutritious meals."

"We must get the message out," DiMuzio added. "Parents have got to realize that they cannot duplicate a comparative meal at the cost we produce a meal for." He said he has rebuilt school lunches with store-bought groceries and found their costs ranged from $1.40 to $1.85. School lunches now cost 90 cents in elementary schools and 95 cents in secondary schools.

The Maryland State Department of Education has 30 billboards across the state telling parents that school meals are still nutritious. So far, this campaign has had no measurable results, according to Department of Education food specialist Joan Weatherholt.

"Many of our school lunch programs are under agreement with local boards of education, but I'm not sure how many would underwrite them," Weatherholt said. "I think a lot of them would go into different food services. And in that case, what you'd get into is another eating station, and not nutritional eating."

In Montgomery County, where participation has dropped 18 percent from last year, elementary schools are sending colorful printed menus containing nutritional information home to parents. Director of Food Services Joanne Styer said she believes this is helping to bring children back.

Like Prince George's, Montgomery schools have a fund of about a $1 million to draw upon if necessary. Styer said it is "probable" that they will.

DiMuzio said the Prince George's schools will have to re-evaluate the entire food system to find ways to cut costs. But any action will be delayed until figures for November are in, to confirm the drop as permanent.

"It causes us to be even more vigilant with every single dollar," he said. "It's going to be a constant pulling in. More satelliting, more prepackaged meals and the possibility of a central kitchen are being explored."

Seventy of the county's 198 schools already have hot lunches shipped in from nearby schools. "I'm trying to keep the same procedure -- the concept of bulk satellite feeding rather than prepackaged frozen dinners," DiMuzio said. "It's a little more expensive but much more acceptable from the kids' point of view."

The real value of each meal served is now $1.20, DiMuzio said. The food service receives 10 cents toward that cost from the federal government, a small profit from a la carte items and an average of 11 cents a meal from "commodities."

"Commodities" are the truckloads of surplus food shipped to the schools by the federal government. Questioned at last Thursday's school board meeting by board member Leslie Kreimer, DiMuzio said he has little control over what the government sends.

Board member Bonnie F. Johns said last week that if November figures confirm the drop in participation, she will introduce a motion to keep down the price of children's meals. She said she is considering asking for an increase in the prices charged to teachers eating school meals. Teachers are now charged $1.30 for their lunches.