Next thing you know, they'll charge for air. Ridiculous?Listen to what happened last week to Pat Hersch of Reston -- and gulp down those free breaths while you can.

Pat was attending a function at Forest Edge Elementary School, where her son Jamie, 8, is a student. Along for the ride were husband Jay and son Eric, 2. The whole family was sitting at one of the tables in the school lunch room when Eric decided it would be a good idea to knock his dad's coffee all over his dad's lap.

Mom to the rescue! Pat sprinted for the cafeteria line, where she suspected there'd be a stack of napkins. Indeed, there was a heap of several hundred. Pat grabbed a handful, and was heading back to mop up the damage when the cashier said:

"That'll be two cents apiece."

"You've got to be kidding," Pat said. "My husband is sitting there soaking in hot coffee!"

"That'll be two cents apiece," the cashier repeated.

This being Washington, there followed a negotiation, and a face-saving compromise:

Pat was allowed to go mop up the mess as long as she promised to return and to pay two cents for the entire handful of napkins. Pat not only agreed, but she paid. I'm not sure I would have done either.

Charging for napkins? Is this some kind of joke, George Hamel, public relations director of the Fairfax County schools?

"No joke, Bob," George said. "Our food service program is in pretty tough financial condition. We've been trying for years to make it self-sufficient. One result of that is that there's a charge for everything."

Brace yourself. Here's the partial price list that George ticked off.

A plastic knife, fork or spoon costs two cents.

A plate made of finest styrofoam costs two cents.

A plastic cup, no doubt hand-hewn by old-world craftsmen, costs three cents.

The same cup with ice in it costs 10 cents. The ice must have been holy water before they froze it.

At the moment, salt and pepper are free. At the moment.

According to Hamel, there is no charge for plasticware, plates or cups if they are used in the course of a meal. The purpose of the charges is to deter frivolous use of these items.

But look at what else the charges deter.

Let's say a teacher wants to bring in a birthday cake and some ice cream for one of her students. She figures all she needs to schlepp from home is the food itself. She can get the utensils from the cafeteria.

If her class has 25 children in it, that assumption will cost the teacher at least $2.75--50 cents each for the forks, spoons, plates and napkins, and 75 cents for the cups. If the cups contain ice, the tab will come to $4.50. Guess how many birthday parties that teacher will feel like throwing at those rates.

I realize you can't balance the county school food services budget by wishing. But can't food prices be raised a nickel per item instead of soaking the Pat Hersches of this world? Plastic, paper and ice are part of the cost of doing business.