As Food Prices Rise, Setting Menus Is Cause of Heartburn for Schools

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With food and fuel prices increasing sharply, food and nutrition directors in school districts around the country are finding themselves facing some uncomfortable choices.

In some districts, school lunch menus are being pared down to fewer selections, instead of the array of healthy options districts would like to offer. In other areas, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are substituting for fresh. Many meals directors say they’re going to have to ask their school boards to consider raising prices to keep up with the cost of the food that is going on plates.

The Miami-Dade County, Fla., district has streamlined its choices, increased the price of some a la carte lunch items, and quit serving hard-boiled eggs, among other changes, said Penny Parham, the food and nutrition director for the 342,000-student district.

And the penny-pinching doesn’t stop with food. “You’re watching literally every napkin and every spork,” Ms. Parham said.

The Congressional Research Service, which shares public-policy analysis with elected officials and the public, released a report April 10 that laid out a web of factorsRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader that have led to the largest annual jump in U.S. food prices since 1990. Corn for ethanol fuel is competing for space with food and feed crops; poor harvests have reduced food supplies; rapidly growing economies in nations like China and India are increasing demand for food; and transportation costs have increased because of higher fuel prices.

The rapid increase is following a period of relatively stable food prices. So, much like retail consumers, administrators of school food programs find themselves squeezed because not only is it more expensive to produce some foods, it also costs more to move the food from one location to another.

No More Lasagna

“Oil is driving everything right now,” said Cindy Hobbs, the child-nutrition director for the 132,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina. The district hasn’t been forced to make any cuts yet, she said, but is looking carefully at the food options it offers.

When the district noted that students weren’t eating as much relatively high-priced lasagna as they were lower-priced spaghetti, lasagna came off the menu. Such a change allowed the district to streamline its menu and increase its buying power by purchasing more spaghetti. The district had planned to offer some new entrees, but has decided for the next school year to stick to “old favorites,” Ms. Hobbs said last week.

Another pressure for districts comes from federally mandated “wellness policies” that require schools to offer healthier food options for lunch. Some of those options—whole-grain rolls, for example—can cost more than their less nutritious counterparts. ("Schools Respond to Federal ‘Wellness’ Requirement," June 14, 2006.)

Last September, a 50-pound bag of Ultragrain, a whole-wheat flour that looks and tastes like white flour, cost the St. Paul, Minn., district $15.25. Now, the same bag costs $25, said Jean Ronnei, the director of nutrition services for the 40,000-student district.

Flashy packaging is also getting a second look. Melanie Konarik, the director of child nutrition for the 33,500-student Spring, Texas, district in suburban Houston, saw a 100 percent increase in milk consumption when the district switched to colorful plastic bottles instead of standard cardboard cartons.

The bottles cost a few pennies more than cartons, however. Ms. Konarik believes she’ll be able to keep the bottles, though, because providing straws for each carton increases the cost of that option by another cent.

“It’s that type of analysis, on every single thing we serve,” Ms. Konarik said.

Less Expensive Options

• New York City replaced grape tomatoes with sliced tomatoes at salad bars.
• Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., offers just spaghetti, not lasagna.
• Spring, Texas, serves hand-cut carrot sticks instead of baby carrots.,
• Hoover, Ala., is offering more bananas and apples instead of grapes.

Not Keeping Pace

Though Congress scrambled last week to put the finishing touches on a massive farm bill, school nutrition directors are not expecting the legislation to address the issues they face.

The Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association, which represents food-service directors nationwide, is advocating that Congress make changes to the federal child-nutrition law, which is up for reauthorization next year. That bill covers the school meals program and feeding programs for low-income people.

High on the organization’s agenda is an increase in funding. Federal reimbursement rates are not enough to match the price of a school lunch, according to the SNA.

The cost of preparing a school lunch ranges from $2.70 to $3.10 nationwide, according to association research conducted in 2007. Direct reimbursements from the government, commodity foods provided by federal sources, and money collected from students cover from $2 to $2.60 per lunch. Districts make up the difference out of their own budgets.

But, while high food prices are pinching school programs, districts still have more room to maneuver than families may have, said James D. Weill, the president of the Food Resource and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group that works to prevent hunger and undernutrition in the United States.

“Our primary concern is the more serious problem that lower-income families have,” Mr. Weill said.With family salaries flat or going down, school meals are an important option, he said: “Schools need to serve more kids, not fewer.”

Mary Kate Harrison, the general manager of student nutrition services for the 183,000-student Hillsborough County district in Tampa, Fla., said she is considering asking for a 25-cent increase in lunch prices for the 2008-09 school year, and an additional 25-cent increase for the school year after that. Lunch is now $1.75 for elementary students and $2.25 for middle and high school students.

Cutting Fresh Produce

The Hillsborough district already has cut back on offering fresh produce—from five days a week to only twice a week. It uses frozen and canned food as a replacement. Finding a different napkin and tray provider shaved $170,000 off the district’s $85 million budget.

At the same time, the district is paying $1.6 million more than budgeted this school year just for milk, Ms. Harrison said.

“Everyone is going to have to start looking at their meal prices,” she said. “We’re always the best deal in town. People have been afraid to raise prices, saying that parents can’t afford it, but times have changed.

“I have the same overhead as your neighborhood restaurant,” Ms. Harrison said, “and we’re expected to stay self-supporting.”

Not all districts are prepared to raise prices. Ms. Konarik, in Texas, believes the Spring district may be able to hold off on raising prices for at least one more school year.

She is using the fact that her district has acquired many more students from Louisiana to introduce tasty—and cheaper—foods that have regional appeal, such as beans and rice. Students displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina have asked for such options.

Ms. Konarik said she successfully “trained” the district’s students to like broccoli. Now, she hopes they’ll be just as willing to try a less expensive dish, squash, “with a lot of onions and garlic.” And hand-cut carrot sticks will take the place of baby carrots.

“I’ve just got to be very efficient in what I do,” Ms. Konarik said. “I still have a little bit of wiggle room.”

Vol. 27, Issue 36, Pages 1, 15

Published in Print: May 7, 2008, as As Food Prices Rise, Setting Menus Is Cause of Heartburn for Schools
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