Food Prices Eat Up School Lunch

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Tom Grill / Corbis

Students at about three-quarters of American schools can expect to find higher prices in their cafeterias when they return this fall, according to a recent survey by the School Nutrition Association. The reason? Skyrocketing costs for nearly every basic food item schools rely on for meals — including a 17% increase in the price of milk and bread since last year. "You can only stretch the food dollar so far," the association's president-elect, Katie Wilson, told members of the House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday. "We simply don't have the funds to continue on with this."

U.S. schools served about 5 billion lunches last year with an average price tag of $2.58 per meal. That cost will likely jump $0.30 — or 12% — per meal in the coming year, SNA estimates, or about $1.5 billion nationwide. Most schools already lose money on free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast programs; nearly 18 million students qualify for these meals, which are subsidized by the federal government, but at a rate far below the actual cost of providing the food. To make ends meet, nearly 70% of schools told SNA that they would have to dip into "rainy day" funds, financial reserves that usually go to capital improvements. Some 62% said they are also considering cutting staff.

Inflationary prices will also likely affect the foods students find on their lunch trays come September. Because they are subsidized, schools must meet federal nutrition guidelines for what they can offer in cafeterias, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. But in recent years, many schools have worked hard to also include more low-calorie as well as organic and locally grown fare. Those options may disappear as schools struggle to lower their food bills. A serving of whole-grain bread, for instance, can cost as much as six cents more than a slice of white bread.

Higher prices are also calling into question one of the staples of kiddie cafeterias. "Do we have to really offer milk with every breakfast and every lunch we serve?" Pavel Matustik, who runs nutrition programs for five school districts in southern California, asked during his testimony before Congress Wednesday. For every penny the price of milk goes up, he added, the cost of preparing school meals increases $54 million nationally.

Many schools will try to pass along some of the cost increases to families already grappling with higher grocery bills. An additional 1.5 million Americans were receiving food stamps in March compared to a year earlier, according to the USDA. Meanwhile, America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest food-bank network, reported a 20% increase in the number of people seeking food aid this spring compared to a year ago. And this summer more parents have signed their kids up for camps that make use of free lunch programs. "More and more children are coming to child care hungry," said Paula James, director of the Contra Costa Child Care Council in California.

And little relief is in sight. Soaring oil prices, massive amounts of farmland diverted into producing biofuels, and demand from developing countries such as China and India are just some of the factors behind the rising prices worldwide — none of which is easily overcome. U.S. consumers can expect the price of food to rise an additional 5.5% this year, USDA economist Ephraim Leibtag told Congress. "I think the price levels we're at now are not going to go down anytime soon," he added. And that means schools and families may face even tougher times down the road.