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A crunch hits lunch

The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County students who eat breakfast at school may soon have to do without whole-grain cinnamon rolls. In Carroll County, school cafeterias are stretching their vegetable supply by making more soups. And in Montgomery County schools, tomatoes are being replaced in lunch salads by less-pricey carrots.

The global food shortage and the resulting spike in the cost of milk, grains and fresh fruits and vegetables are squeezing school lunchroom budgets in Maryland and across the nation.

A convergence of factors - a sharp rise in food prices not seen since the 1970s, climbing transportation costs as oil tops $120 a barrel and growing labor costs - has cash-strapped schools doing some creative penny-pinching and raising meal prices.

Anne Arundel County school board members voted yesterday to raise school lunch and breakfast prices next school year by 25 cents and charge 5 cents more for a half-pint of milk. It's the first price increase the county has adopted for lunches in three years. School officials said costs for food have increased 15.5 percent in that time.

Even with pricier lunches, school nutrition officials in the 74,000-student Anne Arundel school system warned that they will face a $1 million deficit next year and will likely be forced to raise prices again next spring.

"We hope that by raising prices in small increments, it won't be as hard on families," said Jodi Risse, supervisor for food and nutrition services in Anne Arundel County. "We don't want to see a drop in participation and have Mom and Dad packing peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches because they can't afford to pay for school lunch any more."

The pinch caused by higher fuel prices, transportation surcharges and rising costs for bread and milk caused Harford County schools to raise lunch prices this school year by 20 cents.

Carroll County schools are spending $107,000 more on food this year than last and are considering a 25- to 50-cent increase to cover rising food transportation costs coupled with a sharp drop in meal purchases. Gwen Ruskey, food service accountant for Carroll schools, said the county has seen its meal-buyers drop by 100 students a month since November. On top of that, she's hearing from food suppliers that they're upping their fuel surcharges to the district from $8 to $14.

"With everything that's been happening, it's been extremely hard on us," she said.

Howard County school prices are staying put for now, but only after the county adopted increases that raised the cost of meals by 75 cents since 2005. Baltimore County school officials say they won't be considering meal prices until summer. School officials in Baltimore City, where nearly nine out of 10 meals go to low-income students, say they're looking to trim costs rather than raise prices. Among the options: buying their own trucks to cut food transportation costs.

The price increases affect only students who pay the full, though subsidized, price for lunch. School nutrition officials said they're concerned about the squeeze middle-class families will feel, and Anne Arundel is bracing for a 3 percent drop in the 5 million lunches a year that it serves as a result of the raise just approved.

Low-income families who qualify for reduced-price or free lunches will not be affected. In Anne Arundel, that's two-thirds of the 6,000 breakfasts served daily and about two-fifths of the 32,000 daily lunches.

"It just feels like everything's going up," said Anita Owens, president of the Anne Arundel Council of PTAs. "I think parents are just going to start packing more lunches, making more sandwiches because we're getting hit at the gas pump, at the grocery store. It's hard all around."

Economists and other experts say that grain shortages have been aggravated by record-high oil prices, which have driven a push for ethanol, a biofuel made from large quantities of corn. Meanwhile, demand for wheat has jumped as it is substituted for less-available corn.

And that demand means that suppliers have warned Anne Arundel school officials that the whole-wheat muffins and cinnamon rolls that cost the district 30 cents apiece this school year are likely to cost about 50 cents each next year. Officials say they aren't sure how they'll deal with that - though the response in Broward County, Fla., has been to replace the wheat baked goods with ones made from cheaper white flour.

Local officials say they're squeezed because federal funding to keep meal costs low hasn't kept pace with food prices - going up just 3 percent in the past year while bread and milk have soared 12 and 17 percent, respectively.

The U.S. Agriculture Department gives schools $2.47 per lunch to serve free meals to children from needy families, up from $2.40 last year, according to the agency's Web site. Yet the average lunch costs schools $2.70 to $3.10 to produce, says the School Nutrition Association.

For students eligible to buy a reduced-price lunch, the federal government provides $2.07 per meal but just 23 cents a meal for students who pay full price. Schools also receive lower-priced "commodities," such as meat, cheese and canned goods from the federal government.

Kate Houston, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services with the USDA, defended the federal support, saying that a 2005 study showed reimbursements on average kept pace with inflation.

She said her department is tracking prices to adjust reimbursement rates for next year. Rates likely will increase more than last year's 3 percent boost, she said, but probably not significantly.

School meal programs run on tight margins, so the gap between federal reimbursement and meal costs has school officials scrambling to respond. Adding to schools' challenges are increasingly stringent federal nutrition standards that require systems to purchase lower-fat dairy products, whole-wheat foods and more fruits and vegetables - options that are healthier but more expensive.

One North Carolina school system struggling to break even has begun offering Yoo-hoos in addition to the more nutritious milk because the chocolate drink company gives the system a portion of the sales to help cover mounting fuel and food bills.

"We're truly struggling, especially with reimbursements just not keeping up," said Mary Hill, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association and food services director for Jackson, Miss., schools.

"We're dealing with the early phases this year of the food prices going up, and it's frightening to even think about what next year will be like."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Gina Davis, Sara Neufeld, Madison Park and John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

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