School cafeterias cutting corners to offset rising prices
By Sarah Nagem
Daniel Durham, a first-grader at Hurley Elementary, gladly ate school lunch last Friday ó chicken nuggets, corn, a roll and an ice pop.
While he chewed, the 7-year-old was clueless to the rising cost of his meal. Daniel surely didn’t care that the price of his nuggets will jump about 8 percent next school year.
He wouldn’t be phased by a 7 percent increase in the cost of his roll. And a carton of milk? It didn’t matter to Daniel that the price will jump about 5 percent.
But it all matters to Libby Post, director of child nutrition for the Rowan-Salisbury School System. The school system is feeling the sting of rising food prices, brought on in part by high gas prices.
To deal with the price jumps, Post said, the nutrition department is trying to cut corners the best it can ó while meeting state nutrition guidelines without the benefit of state funds.
Post hopes state lawmakers shell out some money to help with rising food and labor costs.
“It’s going to be a tough year, there’s no question,” Post said.
U.S. Foodservice, a large food supplier, is the main vendor for the Rowan-Salisbury system. The company provides entrees and side dishes.
The school system paid U.S. Foodservice about $2.76 million this school year, Post said. Next school year, the price will jump to about $3 million ó an increase of about 8 percent.
“We looked for more cost-effective items when we could,” Post said. “We tried to make some decisions that would offset the price increases.”
Students might not notice the changes, but little things add up. Post decided to switch hot-sauce brands to save some money. The schools will receive a different brand of cheese sauce, too.
And the school system will save $20,000 by switching to 1-ounce cookies for high school cafeterias, Post said. Now, those students get 1 1/2-ounce cookies.
Maola, a North Carolina-based company that supplies milk to Rowan-Salisbury, is increasing its prices between 4 percent and 5 percent, Post said.
This school year, the schools will spend about $900,000 for milk. The company could increase the price throughout the year to keep up with its own rising costs.
Post said the numbers weren’t clear about next year’s ice cream prices. But the school system is asking the vendor to deliver every other week instead of every week. Helping the vendor save money on gas could stave off higher food prices, she said.
As for bread, the numbers aren’t encouraging, Post said. This school year, schools are paying $1.12 for a dozen hamburger buns. Next school year, the price will be $1.17, Post said.
Now, schools pay $1.05 for a loaf of whole-wheat bread. The price will be $1.15 next school year.
North Carolina is requiring that school meals include whole grains, along with fruits and vegetables. But the reality is that healthy foods cost more.
It’s a fact that Amy Hendrick, child nutrition supervisor for Rowan-Salisbury elementary schools, knows well.
“They require us to meet fat guidelines, calorie guidelines,” Hendrick said. “They ask us to incorporate more whole grains, which is more expensive.”
Hoping for help
Nutrition requirements didn’t come with any cash to implement them.
The federal government foots part of the bill for school nutrition programs. In Rowan-Salisbury, where about 50 percent of students receive free or discounted lunch, the government pays $2.47 for each child who gets free lunch.
The government pays $2.07 for each student who gets discounted lunch and 23 cents for each student who pays the full price.
The cost of feeding one child lunch is more than $2, Post said. To make things worse in Rowan, Post expects an increase next year in the number of students who qualify for free or discounted lunch due to layoffs at Freightliner in Cleveland.
“I feel sure that’s going to jump,” Post said.
She’s hoping state lawmakers open the coffers to school nutrition departments. The State Board of Education asked for $20 million to help with rising costs. A proposed House budget now includes $4 million for that purpose.
The $20 million would have meant between $250,000 and $350,000 for Rowan-Salisbury, Post said.
“That would have been huge,” she said.
But Post appreciates the smaller number too. “It will still be a welcome help with the cost increases.”
The proposed budget also includes a salary jump for school personnel ó which includes cafeteria workers ó of 2.75 percent or $1,100, whichever is more.
The higher salaries would be a 9 percent or 10 percent jump for cafeteria workers in Rowan-Salisbury, Post said. The system had budgeted for a 5 percent salary increase.
“That’s going to hurt,” Post said. “We were nervous about 5.
“Hopefully the state funding will come through.”
In the meantime, Post is thankful for the school board’s approval of higher lunch prices.
Next school year, the price of a student’s lunch in elementary school will jump from $1.75 to $1.85. In middle and high schools, the price will jump from $1.85 to $2.
Could be worse
As bad as things might seem ó Post said the price jumps are the highest in her nine years as nutrition director ó she was expecting them to be worse.
In Kannapolis City Schools, officials are bracing for food price increases up to 32 percent, said Anne Treanor, that system’s director of child nutrition.
Treanor said she has seen milk prices jump 1 or 2 cents every week for several months.
Kannapolis schools have a higher percentage of students who receive free or discounted lunch, so the federal government pays a little more. But the school system is still feeling a strain, Treanor said.
Each school in Kannapolis offers free breakfast, a program the school system is proud of. More students eat breakfast than lunch, Treanor said.
High prices are making it hard to maintain the program, but school officials are dedicated to keeping it in place.
“You want to feed every child,” Treanor said, “but it’s difficult to do that when you’re not seeing an increase in revenue.”