Rising food costs have hit stores, restaurants, households—and schools, too. School cafeterias across the country are battling soaring inflation, staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions, forcing many of the nation’s school districts to raise their prices or serve more limited menus as students head back to classrooms this fall.
While schools have been trying to come up with innovative ways of solving the problem, this could mean that millions more families will be paying an extra fee for lunch and breakfast. The federal pandemic-era meal waivers that allowed all students to eat free of charge have ended. This means lunch costs could be as high as $5 per day or as high as $900 for the entire school year.
“I worry about kids going hungry,” says Jennifer Bove, food and nutrition director at East Hampton Public Schools in Connecticut.
Schools face many challenges
Nearly every food item Shannon Gleave (director of food and nutrition in the Glendale Elementary school District in Arizona) ordered for next year is significantly more expensive than in 2021. A can of diced pear halves cost almost 9% more than in 2021; hamburger patties are 20% more expensive; and cereal has nearly doubled in price. The school district has even stopped serving its popular “walking tacos” because the tortilla chips are too expensive and unavailable.
“Getting the items that students really like has been challenging,” says Gleave, whose district welcomed students back to school on Aug. 8. “We have 10 to 15 items being substituted every week.”
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, schools have seen the cost of food and supplies increase between 12 to 20% on average over the last two years, according to Joan Shorter, director of food and nutrition at Prince George’s County Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in the nation. The cost of milk cartons is 6-7% more, and fruit costs 10 cents per portion. The cost of food can quickly rise in an area that offers around 80,000 breakfasts and lunches daily. “We’re talking $8,000 more per day for fruit and that’s just one meal,” Shorter says. “We haven’t even looked at breakfast yet.”
It’s not just food items that are becoming more expensive. The cost of paper and cleaning products has also increased over the past year. Gleave claims that the cost of serving salads on trays is two-fold higher.
While some schools raise taxes for students and their families to pay more, some others caution that rising prices could lead to poor nutrition in student meals, especially in low-income areas like Glendale. Here, 94% are enrolled in the reduced and free lunch program.
“There’s a high percentage of poverty in our district, so I don’t know if families will be able to afford price increases,” Gleave says. “But we may not have a choice.”
Prices may rise significantly for families. East Hampton Public Schools is in Connecticut. There meals are $3 at elementary schools and $4.50 high schools. The district anticipates a $0.50 price increase for each meal. “I don’t know how we can break even without doing it,” Bove says.
Families that qualify for free or reduced-price meals after the expiration of federal pandemic waivers must apply this year. The School Nutrition Association states that a family of four with a household income less than $36,075 can receive free meals, while if the family has a total budget less than $51,338 they are eligible to get reduced meals at $0.30 and $0.40 respectively.
What’s causing higher prices
According to economists, there were many factors that contributed to an increase in food prices, including disruptions in supply chains caused by the Ukraine war and pandemic. This led to higher wheat prices. U.S. egg production was also affected by the deadly Avian Flu. In addition, severe droughts in Latin America, high costs of fuel, labor, and packaging also played a part.
Schools are facing serious staffing problems in many school nutrition programs. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, schools are currently 200 employees short, from cafeteria staff to food service professionals, meaning they have to purchase more prepackaged items instead of preparing some foods on-site.
“If we don’t have the staff to make 100 sandwiches we might have to buy sandwiches that are already pre-made, and that increases our costs,” Shorter says.
Pandemic-era Funds: What role?
School meals were free to all families, regardless of income, during the pandemic. The program was ended June. This made eligibility difficulter and more complex.
“There are a lot of families in my district that are not going to qualify for free or reduced meals because it’s based purely on income,” says Bove. “It doesn’t take into account debt.”
California and Maine have become the first two states to offer universally free school meals. But in most cases, parents will pay more for the food.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Lori Adkins, child nutrition consultant for Oakland Schools in Michigan and president of the School Nutrition Association, a national organization that advocates for the quality of school meal programs. “Anytime you increase your meal prices, it’s going to negatively impact participation. But we need to make sure that revenue is covering our food costs.”
Some schools districts find creative solutions for rising prices and supply chain problems. For example, they lease warehouse space together with others to store bulk products.
East Hampton’s school district has teamed up with local vendors to find cheaper produce this year and avoid disruptions in the supply chain. Bove said she was able to find a local farm where apples can be purchased for $35 as opposed to $65 that the district would typically pay. “I’ve been branching out to local farms and trying to do more farm-to-school because the supply chain with them is great and it’s cheaper,” she says. But that might not be an option when apples aren’t in season.
Many districts also plan to cook their meals from scratch, rather than using premade food. Some schools have bread mixers and are creating their own rolls. Others are also growing fresh fruits and vegetables in order to reduce the amount of canned food that is packaged and wasteful.
Gleave’s district in Arizona plans to educate students and their families about the environmental and economic effects of food waste so that students only take food they can actually eat.
But it isn’t always that easy. It is not always easy for schools to recoup expenses by raising their prices.
What’s next for high prices
Economists—and the White House—say cost issues are starting to ease up. Distributors have told the Glendale Elementary School District that they expect supply chain disruptions to fade around March of 2023, though it’s unclear if prices will also drop.
Congress provides some relief for school districts that cannot afford to pay higher food costs. Although the universal free meals program is gone, the government continues to reimburse schools for some costs at a higher rate than before the pandemic—even though those rates are lower than last year.
Even though inflation and supply-chain issues are showing signs of slowing down, international food prices continue to be high. Nearly all food items in U.S. grocery shops cost more today than last year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last Wednesday that prices have increased 13.1% annually over the past twelve months. It is the biggest annual increase since 43 years.
“I have to believe that parents understand why the cost of school food has gone up,” Adkins says. “They go to grocery stores too and see that milk and bread costs more today.”
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