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Rising food price hit school lunchrooms

by Laura Schocker
Oct 07, 2008


Illustration courtesy of Evanston Township High School

One way local school districts are saving money is by working together. Labels such as this one used at Evanston Township High School can be bulk for a lower cost for participating schools than bought by individual schools.

As skyrocketing gas and food prices continue to affect families, school districts are feeling the economic strain as well.

The cost of producing a school lunch jumped 27 cents this year to a national average of $2.90, according to a report released last month by the School Nutrition Association. And with the government reimbursing only $2.57 per meal, school districts are forced to find ways to make up for the loss.

“It’s obviously not enough to keep up with the cost of what it takes to prepare a meal,” said Alexis Steines, public affairs associate for the Child Nutrition and Policy Center of the School Nutrition Association, adding that students who qualify for reduced or free lunches won’t see any changes. “It’s the students that aren’t participating in either of those programs that have to pay more.”

In addition to raising prices, schools are trying to find other ways to cut costs for this school year while maintaining nutritious value. For instance, Steines said, a school may eliminate the more expensive cherry tomatoes in favor of cheaper sliced tomatoes.

“There’s many different ways that schools can try to work with the amount of money that they have,” Steines said. “They’re finding creative solutions to try and solve that problem.”

And Illinois schools are joining this nationwide push for these creative solutions.

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, for instance, lunches are priced on a tiered system that increases depending on which of the 20 entrees a student chooses, said Micheline Piekarski, director of food and nutrition services for the school. This year, prices range from $2.25 to $4; last school year they started at $2.

But the price increases don’t make Oak Park/River Forest  unique in this economic climate, said Connie Mueller, director of food and nutrition services for a school district in downstate Bloomington. More than 70 percent of school districts nationwide have raised their prices this year, she said.

"It’s a balancing act,” said Mueller, whose district raised lunch prices 10 cents at the elementary level and 15 cents for junior and senior high. “The good thing is that everybody seems to understand that our meal prices have gone up and the struggles we’re facing, because families are facing these same things when they go to the grocery stores.”

To cut costs, Mueller is also trying to delay equipment purchases this year, minimize waste and ensure appropriate portion sizes, all while maintaining nutritional standards.

“We’re trying to improve the quality of our meals and still not break the bank,” Mueller said.

One solution for local schools is to find power in numbers.

Evanston Township High School, for instance, is part of the Northern Illinois Independent Purchasing Cooperative, which has a group of districts that band together to keep prices low through their combined purchasing power, said Meghan Gibbons, registered dietitian and director of nutritional services for ETHS.  The school also obtains bids for items like freshly delivered bread.

Gibbons’ school has also changed packaging. For instance, a sandwich used to be sold in a container that cost 38 cents, but recently changed to one that costs a mere 7 cents. They also purchased labels that, combined with other schools, gave them a bulk rate of two cents a label. Other shortcuts have included eliminating extra salad dressing packets, cutting down to two colors of plastic cutlery instead of three, emphasizing the importance of recycling and reducing staff hours.

To keep meals nutritious, the school has cut back the number of days they offer French fries and has switched to whole-grain pizza crust. And sometimes healthier choices means lower costs as well.

Desserts, like brownies and cookies, are now served in smaller portion sizes, with either the same or increased prices as last year, an unpopular choice for students who may not have noticed the increasing prices before stepping into the cafeteria this school year.

“Many of them are consumers that really don’t have to pay when they go out elsewhere, but they do pay here, so it’s kind of a shock to them,” Gibbons said.

But local districts are hoping to find relief soon. In September, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced legislation that would change the reimbursements for schools twice a year based on inflation. Right now these changes come once a year.

“The biggest challenge is that the reimbursement rate has not increased to offset the increase in food costs,” said Allison Slade, principal of Namaste Charter School in Chicago, which maintains nutritious menu options by fundraising from outside sources. “As food costs rise, if the reimbursement rate doesn’t change significantly, we’d have to make more ... changes.”