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Costs bite into school menus
Cafeterias struggle to offer healthy items while holding down prices.
By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 20, 2008
TAMPA - Flaky and soft, the biscuit debuting next month in Hillsborough school cafeterias should be cause for celebration. It has no trans fat,which students won't miss.
But they will notice when biscuits aren't served daily anymore. The healthier version costs an extra 3 cents per biscuit, which is forcing difficult decisions behind the lunch counter. Just like families, school nutrition programs are struggling to live within budgets. Painful price increases in cafeteria staples such as milk and pasta are complicating efforts to improve the quality of school meals.
Hillsborough already sees the tradeoffs on its menu.
A carton of low-fat chocolate milk costs about 35 percent more this year, the biggest item on a milk bill expected to jump by $1.7-million. So schools have started serving calcium-fortified juice every day.
At 7 to 12 cents a packet, juice can substitute for fresh fruit that's been scaled back to twice-weekly menu appearances. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, it's canned instead. "Would I like to offer the kids more fresh fruit? Absolutely," said Hillsborough student nutrition services manager Mary Kate Harrison. "But it's a balancing act."
Feeling the pinch
School food isn't getting cheaper in other local districts. In Pasco, apple prices are up 18 percent. Tomatoes have risen an astronomical 68 percent. Honey wheat bread has increased 8.5 percent.
Pasco food and nutrition director Rick Kurtz said he's doing better on entrees. Still, turkey and gravy, a popular item, is up 7 percent. "We haven't even talked about milk," he said.
Or the petroleum-based products needed to serve meals, such as the lunch trays costing 33 percent more this year. So far, Kurtz has avoided major menu changes by doing things like adopting a breakfast "spork" in lieu of the fork-spoon-napkin pack.
But menu adjustments are on the table for Pasco next year. Kurtz also plans to ask for a 20-cent increase in meal prices, though he doesn't expect to get that much. Pasco lunch prices went up a nickle this year to $1.80 for lunch in elementary schools and $2.30 in secondary.
"We are hurting," Kurtz said, calling the problems universal. "We all have wellness policies. We all are working our best to provide the healthiest meals possible. But I challenge anybody out there to serve what we do at $1.80."
Hillsborough also is considering a meal price increase. Pinellas isn't there yet, but is being more selective in trying new foods. It is looking to seasonal items to keep fresh produce on the menu.
"We wouldn't necessarily say, 'No more apples,'" said Grey Miller, director of food services in Pinellas. "But we won't have the variety of fruits."
Like other meal managers, Miller worries about raising prices at a time when family budgets are pinched. She wants to keep students eating lunch from her cafeterias, not packed at home.
Stretching the dollars
The financial calculus is complicated for school programs, which receive a small federal subsidy for paid lunches as well as reimbursement for students living near the poverty line.
In Hillsborough, for example, federal dollars total about 55 percent of the food program's revenue. Half of students qualify for free or reduced meals. Under income scales set nationally, a family of four earning $26,845 or less can get free lunch, and prices are reduced if the household earns $38,203. Hillsborough offers free breakfast to all students.
On the expense side, Hillsborough's food program is expected to be a self-sufficient enterprise within the larger district. It pays not just salaries and benefits of employees, but also a share of garbage, maintenance and electric bills. The district even charges for indirect costs like cutting paychecks.
Unpredictable raw food expenses account for 38 percent of the $85-million budget. Hillsborough recently determined a bevy of staple items, from crackers to canola oil, will rise in price by $230,670 over the next six months. That's without considering milk, juice, bread or produce.
Against this background, improving meals becomes a game of priorities. Hillsborough saw success in steering students to healthier entrees on the main lunch lines, which now feature a more appetizing chicken sandwich and pizza with whole-grain crust.
But wheat-based products are seeing major price increases, pegged to heightened demand for ethanol.
"Take thin ol' spaghetti," said Harrison, the food manager, whose price list shows a case of spaghetti rising from $11.94 to $14.11. "We're not going to whole grain pasta because we anticipate it would be at least double the cost, if not 21/2times."
"I agree that whole grain is better for you," she acknowledged, "But we're just not able to do it."
Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.