June 24, 2008

Costs Rising for School Lunches

By Stacy Brandt, North County Times, Escondido, Calif.

Jun. 22--NORTH COUNTY -- First the cost at the gas pump jumped up.

Then the bill at the grocery store increased.

Next, starting this fall, many parents are going to be paying more for school lunches.

Over the last couple of months, most North County school districts have decided to raise lunch prices by a quarter or 50 cents next school year, in response to rising food costs.

A 50-cent increase over a 180-day school year could cost parents an extra $90, just for lunch. Some parents also pay each morning for school breakfast, which will also cost more in some districts.

But even the increased meal rates probably won't cover all of the higher costs, nutrition directors at some districts said this week.

"Right now, all of us are struggling," said Pamela Lambert, director of Escondido Union High School District's nutrition services department.

Food costs for school nutrition departments have gone up as much as 20 percent this year, said Vino Mitra, Oceanside Unified School District's child nutrition services director.

"It's very, very hefty," he said, "The food prices just keep going up."

Prices usually stay static or go up 3 percent or 4 percent each year, he said.

Mitra said he expects food prices to rise for a couple of years before stabilizing.

Next year, most schools in the area will charge between $2 and $3 for lunch.

For the most part, parents don't yet know about the increases, said Angela Chunka, president of Vista Unified's districtwide Parent-Teacher Association.

Most parents probably won't find out until schools send home information packets for the upcoming school year over the next couple of months.

Chunka said she thinks school lunches are a great deal, even at the higher prices.

Still, for some parents with lower incomes, the new prices could further complicate already tight budgets, she said.

By increasing lunch prices by a quarter, Oceanside Unified's nutrition department will probably bring in roughly $100,000, which will be dwarfed by its roughly $6 million budget, Mitra said.

Districts' nutrition departments usually have separate budgets and aren't a part of a district's general operating fund.

Typically, about half of a district's nutrition department costs involve food. The other half goes to pay employee salaries and benefits as well as for equipment.

In the past, Oceanside Unified's nutrition department always broke even, but next year might be different. If enough money doesn't come in, the department will have to cut into reserves, Mitra said.

Mitra said he's working to increase the amount of revenue coming in by paying more attention to what students want and working on marketing the offerings better. He also said he plans to hold off a few years before buying any new equipment.

In Escondido, Lambert said she is trying to raise money to offset increasing food costs by selling lunches to teachers as well as students. She also said she's looking into ways to cut back on packaging and supply costs.

Even with some cutbacks inevitable, nutrition directors stressed the importance of continuing to offer healthy, well-balanced meals.

Dena England, director of San Marcos Unified School District's child nutrition services, said she plans to go over her menus carefully to cut costs and make sure she's always serving fruit in season.

"I think we'll be more creative with our menus," she said.

Still, she said she doesn't expect students to notice much of a difference in their lunches.

Food prices for schools are going up for a variety of reasons, administrators said. The biggest is the ever-increasing cost of gasoline.

The effects of supply and demand are also a factor. As many districts work to offer more nutritious meals, the cost of the healthier food rises.

It also is becoming more difficult for school nutrition departments to raise money as state and federal mandates crack down on the sale of sodas and junk food, which used to help offset the high cost of providing healthier food, Lambert said.

"Before all of the mandates, we were able to sell candy, chips and sodas," she said. "Something that cost a penny to make, we could sell for a dollar."


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Copyright (c) 2008, North County Times, Escondido, Calif.

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