Soaring costs forcing school lunch changes - East Valley Tribune: News

Soaring costs forcing school lunch changes

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Posted: Monday, June 16, 2008 4:15 pm | Updated: 9:59 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Sticker shock is hitting some East Valley cafeterias, as high prices are forcing schools to rethink both their lunch prices and the food they serve.

In Tempe, teens will no longer get Peter Piper pizza.

Milk in Apache Junction schools will cost a dime more.

Kids in Scottsdale might see fewer of those chocolate-dipped strawberries they've grown used to eating.

And students in three school districts could see higher prices for school lunches.

"We can't help it. The cost of food has gone up so much, we can't avoid it," said Carol Shepherd, spokeswoman for the Apache Unified School District, which will raise its lunch costs by 35 cents to $2 for elementary students, and up to $2.25 for secondary students.

Sharp rises in prices of grains, milk, meat, vegetables -- and in the gas needed to transport these foods -- have left school cafeteria directors struggling to break even.

Nationwide, food prices rose 5.1 percent from April 2007 to April 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index.

And many school districts are seeing double-digit increases in costs for milk, vegetables and fruit, said Erik Peterson, a spokesman for the Virginia-based School Nutrition Association.

"These last four or five months have been a killer. It's been unbelievable," said Sue Bettenhausen, food and nutrition services director for the Scottsdale Unified School District. "It's been common for Shamrock to notify us of a price increase anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent at one time."

Cafeteria directors are also worried that the USDA National School Lunch Program hasn't kept pace with rising costs, giving schools an average of a 2 percent to 3 percent increase in reimbursements, regardless of the spike in food costs, Peterson said.

Districts are responding to the changes in different ways, but the most common responses are raising prices and examining every expenditure.

One casualty in the Tempe Union High School District is brand-name pizza.

For 15 years, the district has contracted with outside vendors such as Pizza Hut and Domino's to get pizzas to sell in a specialty eating area of the schools' cafeterias. This year, said Rick Griffith, director of food and nutrition, no company even wanted to bid.

"We can't get anyone to do it," he said. "They can't afford to. How are they going to guarantee the price of a pizza when they have flour and then cheese and then they have to have someone drive it to the schools? No one wants it."

In the Mesa Unified School District, meanwhile, soaring food prices have food services director Loretta Zullo counting pennies.

Because the district did not raise its prices, it has to be even more diligent at looking for ways to cut costs, she said.

"One of those is looking at plate waste, because in this economy, a penny here and a penny there really adds up," she said.

After examining what children were tossing, Zullo's department made some "pretty subtle" changes, such as cutting pretzel rods with nacho cheese sauce and bagel dogs, she said.

Muffins will be replaced with less expensive graham crackers, too, she said.

The Tempe Elementary School District might be forced to cut down on the fresh fruit it previously offered for breakfast and lunch, said spokeswoman Monica Allread.

The Scottsdale Unified School District has been able to stay profitable due to its outside catering business, Bettenhausen said.

Nevertheless, the district - which touts less common offerings like hummus and edamame - will have to be "slightly more prudent" this year, she said, by offering its pricier items a little less often.

The Scottsdale district is also one of three in the East Valley that might charge more for lunches next year. On Tuesday, the district's governing board will vote on a proposal that would increase lunch prices 25 cents - up to $2 at the elementary level. It would be the district's first price increase in three years.

The Tempe Elementary district is also considering a 25-cent hike in breakfast and lunch prices.

A la carte items are getting pricier, too.

In the Tempe Union district, rice bowls - one of the most popular items - will cost $4.25 next fall, after the contractor who made the bowls increased prices by 30 percent.

In some cases, though, Griffith said, food prices have increased by so much that it is not possible to recover the cost by price changes alone. In those cases, he said, districts might have to eventually cut back on food service workers.

And there are some indications that economic belt-tightening is affecting the choices teenagers are making in lines, too, Griffith said.

Last year, sales were down by an average of $1,000 per day compared with the previous year, he said.

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