Schools Battle Rising Gas and Food Prices

In the fall, students might face higher lunch prices and four-day school weeks.

Nutritious lunch options such as this salad bar could be more scarce this fall.

Nutritious lunch options such as this salad bar could be more scarce this fall.

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Earlier this summer, when gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon, the Caldwell Parish School Board in Columbia, La., voted to move ahead with a plan that most districts consider a measure of last resort: Beginning this fall, students will attend classes only four days a week. "The market experts are now predicting prices as high as $4.50 a gallon, and who knows what's next?" explains District Superintendent John Sartin. Shortening the school week is expected to save the north-central Louisiana district, which educates 1,800 students, about $145,000 on fuel, food, and substitute teachers.

Switching to a school week made of four longer days might be a particularly drastic measure, but with prices rocketing and revenue sources drying up, more strapped school systems are reaching the same conclusion: Desperate times call for desperate remedies. Besides cutting a day from the school week, some districts are reducing the number of field trips and shortening bus routes to save on fuel. Nationwide, 75 percent of school systems are expected to raise cafeteria meal prices this fall, and 62 percent have plans to lay off some of their kitchen staff.

Hard-hit school districts might also cut back on nutritious but expensive menu choices, a potential blow to national efforts aimed at improving student eating habits. "We are going to see people hurting," says Katie Wilson, the president of the national School Nutrition Association. Wilson worries that the higher costs of meals will cause children of working-class families who don't qualify for federally subsidized meals to eat less. Her organization also says that nutrition programs across the country could lose about $3.3 million daily next school year because the federal reimbursement rate for free and reduced-price lunches isn't enough to cover the true cost of preparing a meal. A congressional committee recently heard the group's appeal for more federal aid.

Paying more for meals. In Davidson County, N.C., school officials are trying to get a handle on soaring food costs by raising school meal prices for the second consecutive year. While the average national price of a school lunch is expected to jump 32 cents, to $1.98, students in Davidson County schools will pay $2.50 for lunch this fall. This new price represents an increase of 70 cents for elementary-school children and 50 cents for all other students. Meredith Palmer, the district's spokeswoman, says the higher prices are necessary to continue serving healthful meals, which will include one more vegetable or fruit serving this year.

Besides shelling out more for grains, milk, and vegetables, which shot up in price in the past year, the Davidson County district is paying higher fuel prices. If prices hold steady, the district plans to spend $1.8 million on diesel this year, up from $1.3 million in the school year that just ended. While school systems in some states can demand payment from families to plug holes in their transportation budgets, Davidson County schools must figure out other ways to make up the difference. "We are having to buy fuel with money for instructional materials," Palmer says. "That hurts, but you have to get students to school."

One concern for districts considering a switch to a four-day school week—a list that includes districts in New Mexico, Florida, and South Carolina—is how the change will affect students and teachers. In Columbia, La., where classes will run Tuesday through Friday until 4:09 p.m., school officials predict that the change not only will lower food and energy bills but will also lead to better student performance and improve morale.

But critics, including a neighboring district that scrapped a similar plan, have pointed out some risks, such as safety concerns during the winter, when children will be dropped off in the dark. These critics also note that high school students could have trouble getting to part-time jobs and afternoon college classes on time. And some working parents wonder what they will do with their children on that extra day they are not in school. School officials recognize the problem, the district's website says, "but [we] must let each family work out its own solution, just as they are surely tackling the problem of dealing with escalating gas prices in their own lives."