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Originally published April 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 15, 2008 at 9:42 AM

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Is nutrition still on the school menu?

New York students will have to settle for pizza without tasty turkey pepperoni topping. In Maryland schools, tomato slices were pulled for...

The Washington Post

New York students will have to settle for pizza without tasty turkey pepperoni topping. In Maryland schools, tomato slices were pulled for a few weeks from cafeteria salads in favor of less-expensive carrots or celery.

And in North Carolina, Yoo-hoo drinks, which had been taken off the shelf in favor of healthier options, are back. Sure, officials would rather the kids chugged milk. But each Yoo-hoo sale brings in 36 cents of profit.

Sharp rises in the cost of milk, grain and fresh fruits and vegetables are hitting cafeterias across the country, forcing cash-strapped schools to raise prices or pinch pennies by serving more economical dishes. Some school officials on a mission to help fight childhood obesity say it's becoming harder to fill students' plates with healthful, low-fat foods.

School meal programs across the country are run somewhat like restaurants, relying on federal and state subsidies, and profits from meal and snack sales and catering services, to buy food and pay workers. Rising labor costs, coupled with the recent push for healthier meals — which has meant serving higher-priced foods such as whole-grain breads and fresh vegetables — has squeezed budgets. Soaring food prices make it even harder to break even.

Puget Sound school districts are no different. Officials with the 27,000-student Kent School District, for example, expect to raise meal prices as they assemble the budget for the next school year.

"As we look at increased costs in food and production ... in order to make ends meet, there will be an increase," school-district spokeswoman Becky Hanks said.

In Seattle, the School Board is considering raising meal prices by as much as 50 cents to help balance next year's budget. Lunch currently costs $1.75 for elementary-school students and $2 for middle- and high-school students.

Miami-Dade County schools are on track to pay $4.5 million more for milk this year than last year, about a 47 percent increase. Penny Parham, administrative director of the schools' department of food and nutrition, went to Washington, D.C., last month to urge federal lawmakers to raise subsidies.

"We do not want to serve our students highly refined sugar and flour products, which are more affordable," Parham told the House Education and Labor Committee, "but we are continually being pushed down this path."

Each year, Uncle Sam, in an effort to ensure the neediest children get healthful meals, gives schools a little more cash to help feed students. But school officials nationwide say the federal share hasn't kept pace with rising costs. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving schools $2.47 per lunch to serve free meals to children from the poorest families, up from $2.40 last year, a 3 percent increase. In the same time, milk prices rose about 17 percent and bread nearly 12 percent.

The federal government provides $2.07 per meal for students eligible for a reduced-price lunch and 23 cents a meal for students who pay full price. Schools also receive some foods, including meat, cheese and canned goods, purchased by the federal government.

The average cost of preparing and serving a school lunch runs from about $2.70 to $3.10, according to the School Nutrition Association.

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In some places, food-service budgets are dipping into the red, requiring schools to use general funds that pay for such expenses as teacher salaries, computers and busing. The operating budgets that provide those general funds are also under heavy pressure because of lower state and local tax revenues.

School food chefs across the country said they are cutting costs in much the same way that at-home chefs clip coupons and scan supermarket aisles for sales. They are seeking to keep healthy items on the menu but are increasingly picky about choosing the most economical options. Several said vendors have warned that prices will be even higher within months.

Small, rural districts, which don't serve enough meals to court competitive bids from suppliers, might be squeezed the most.

But big districts also are feeling the pinch. In the New York school system, the nation's largest, which serves 850,000 meals a day, the milk bill is up $3 million over last year, said Eric Goldstein, chief executive for school support services.

"We're seeing our food cost growing at a rate that is putting pressure on our budget. Increases in corn, wheat, milk — it's really hitting us," Goldstein said. "We're having to be creative, but we're worried it's not sustainable."

Seattle Times staff reporters Emily Heffter and Lauren Vane contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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