Food Costs Driving Up School Meal Prices

Students and families should expect to absorb the extra costs.

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From California to Maine, school cafeterias are struggling to keep up with rising food prices. That's more bad news for cash-strapped families who may have to pay more for school meals this fall. According to the School Nutrition Association, 75 percent of school nutrition directors who responded to a recent survey said they plan to raise meal prices to cope with soaring costs. Prices for foods such as bread, milk, and cheese have jumped 17 percent in the past year alone. Some districts say they have no choice but to pass on the extra cost to students. In Tempe, Ariz., for example, students will no longer get Peter Piper Pizza, and a rice bowl—one of the most popular items—will now cost $4.25.

Rep. George Miller of California calls the trend "deeply worrisome." He and other members of the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing this week on how rocketing food prices are affecting school nutrition programs. Part of the problem is that the federal reimbursement rate for school meals has not kept up with food costs. "We're struggling to make ends meet," said Katie Wilson, president-elect of the School Nutrition Association.

Describing the strain on school lunchrooms, Wilson told committee members that districts are raising meal fees, scaling back on nutritious but expensive items, and trimming their kitchen staffs. In San Diego, for example, secondary-school lunch prices have increased by 50 cents to $2.75. Elsewhere, the price increases have been less severe (10 cents to 35 cents) but no less unnerving for working families who worry that their kids will eat less if prices continue to climb. Nationwide, nearly 50 million children are served by federal child nutrition programs. "For too many students, [a school meal] is the only meal of the day," said James Harnett, president of the Family and Children's Association in Mineola, N.Y.

So what can the feds do? The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which subsidizes school meal programs, can start by giving districts more money, nutrition experts and school officials say. Even though food costs rose by as much as 17 percent in the past year, the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches has remained mostly stagnant for the past two decades. Short of more federal money coming their way, it seems that school districts are on their own. Some districts have taken bold steps and banded together to form co-operatives, which means buying more food but usually at lower prices.

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