In Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the country’s wealthiest counties, schools have begun serving carrots or celery instead of more expensive tomato slices. The county schools are facing a $600,000 increase in their milk bill, so cuts have to be made somewhere.
A tragedy? No, but it’s an indication of trends in school cafeterias.
According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index, from February, 2007 to February 2008, the price of eggs has risen 31%, oranges and milk, 15%, dried beans 11% and apples 10%. As for tomatoes, a South Florida school district reports the round red vegetables have risen 68% in price.
All this while the US government has pushed to have students eating healthier meals. Starting two years ago, school districts began phasing in more foods and drinks from a Food Groups to Encourage list, with more whole grain items, more fresh fruits and vegetables, more low-fat dairy products, and fewer trans fats.
Meanwhile, school districts are thinking about raising the price for school lunches. In Prince Georges County, Maryland, on the edge of the nation’s capital, officials are proposing the first increase in ten years. The director of another school lunch program near Washington, DC is worried about the effect of a proposed price rise on middle income families.
Here’s how the funding for school lunch programs, free (meaning government reimburse) and paid-for works. School lunch programs by law are not profit making organizations. They rely on federal and state subsidies and profits from meals, snack sales and catering services to buy food and pay workers. Meanwhile the push for healthier meals along with rising food costs have made it harder to break even.
Penny Parham, director of the Miami-Dade County Schools Department of Food and Nutrition, testified recently before a Congressional Education and Labor Committee: “We do not want to serve our students highly refined sugar and flour products, which are more affordable, but we are continually being pushed down that path.”
Although a parent might need to be an accountant to understand all the ins and outs of financing school lunches, the bottom line in a recent government report confirms that the full cost of the average school breakfast or lunch is significantly less than the inflation adjusted full cost of these meals over the last fifteen years.
Meanwhile the problem of what students like to eat continues. Because some students eligible for free lunches feel stigmatized standing in a different lines, there is a trend to school districts issuing plastic debit cards (some paid for, some free) so that everyone is in line on an even footing. Meanwhile, another problem continues in the funding. Some districts use “profits” from separate “a la carte” junk food sales to make up for losses on the more nutritious meals.
The rising prices of healthy foods presses on poor and middle income families outside of school as well as at lunchtime. What is a parent to do about all this? One eight year old explains that her parents have her take a lunch three days a week, buy twice, choosing the days by looking over the weekly menu..She’s getting practice in making decisions and that way, the parents know what she is eating in these changing times.