By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
Rising costs for fuel, food and labor are forcing school cafeterias nationwide to raise prices, cut jobs and, in some cases, dip into "rainy day" funds to put food on trays, according to congressional testimony to be delivered today.
Guadalupe Alvarado prepares food in the kitchen at Guerrero Elementary School in Mesa, Ariz. Sticker shock is hitting Guerrero and others, as high prices are forcing schools to rethink both their lunch prices and the food they serve.
MILK AND UGHS
School nutrition officials say rising expenses are driving up the cost of providing school lunch. In prepared congressional testimony, expected today, they say costs for the following items will rise this school year as follows:
Meat and alternatives
Fruit and vegetables
Source: School Nutrition Association
The U.S. Agriculture Department chipped in an extra dime a meal last week to help schools pay for lunches. The new maximum rate is now $2.57, up from $2.47 in 2007.
But school nutrition directors say that doesn't keep pace with costs, which will climb 30 cents a meal this year to a national average of $2.88, the School Nutrition Association says.
Says Katie Wilson, the group's president-elect: "You can only stretch the food dollar so far."
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She is expected to tell lawmakers that 69% of food service directors are "dipping into their financial reserves" meant to purchase equipment just to pay for day-to-day operations — and that the 10-cent increase "fails to meet the true cost" of lunch.
"As food costs continue to rise," she says in prepared testimony, "we are challenged to do more with much less."
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Wilson, the school nutrition director in Onalaska, Wis., also says that 62% of directors surveyed are considering job cuts in the coming school year and that 75% plan to raise the price of a meal for paying students.
In each of the past two years, only about one in three districts have said they'd have to raise prices, the association says.
In an interview Tuesday, Wilson said financial pressures on cafeterias and school districts in general have made the past five to six years the most difficult in her 20 years in the business.
"As the school district gets pinched, they're looking at the food service to bring in revenue," she says.
Research published Monday in Pediatrics suggests that schools still have a long way to go to improve nutrition. It finds that about 55% of schools have a deal with a beverage company to be the sole distributor of sodas and other beverages — but that only 43% take part in a government fruit and vegetable program that provides schools with fresh produce.