Gas Prices Push Up School Lunch Tab

The cost of oil means that kids will pay more for a school lunch. Sandy Neff, food coordinator for Virginia's Augusta County School District, tells how students will pay 25 cents more this fall for their noonday meal — an increase that can be tied to the fuel surcharges tacked onto everything from aluminum foil to oranges.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

You don't have to search too hard to find examples of how high oil and gas prices are working their way through the economy. Today, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, reported its first decline in net income in 10 years. The company says that's due in part to high gas prices in the U.S.

Well, Wal-Mart, meet Sandy Neff. She's dealing with the same thing. Sandy Neff coordinates the food service program for Virginia's Augusta County School District. It had to raise the price of lunch for the first time in four years. It's going up 25 cents.

Ms. SANDY NEFF (Food coordinator, Augusta County School District, Virginia): We try not to raise prices, obviously. But I think the straw that broke the camel's back was the increase in fuel cost and diesel fuel and all of that was passed on to us.

NORRIS: Now when you walk around the kitchens and the cafeterias, can you sort of give us a description of all the goods you see and how those good have gone up in price and how that's been tied to the rise in oil prices?

Ms. NEFF: Well, any type of paper, plastic products, you know, all of those increased. Produce, fruits, vegetables, because of some of the different hurricanes. But overriding factor was all the fuel surcharges that were tacked onto prices.

NORRIS: You received some letters from some of the food suppliers explaining why they had to raise prices. What did those letters say?

Ms. NEFF: Yes. Well, actually those letters went directly to the food distributorship that we work with. And big companies like Kellogg's, Reynold's, all of them were pointing out - aluminum products went up 6 percent, 8 percent. Translucent cups, 8 percent. Trashcan liners, 13 percent increase. Foam hinge lids, tableware, paper products, again, up 10 percent.

NORRIS: So even the packaging is more expensive now.

Ms. NEFF: Yes, exactly. Sugar prices went up dramatically. I was looking here - of course, this letter's dated November 20, 2005, and hurricanes reduced the crop of oranges by over 38 percent. And our students they love oranges, especially if we cut them up. And at the bottom of this letter, again, increased energy costs to run plants and increases in health insurance.

NORRIS: Is that unusual that the food suppliers send these letters of explanation?

Ms. NEFF: I don't know. I don't know if that's unusual. I'm sure they felt they needed to justify the costs going up. But I did talk to our food distributor and they said it was extremely high, it was significant and one of the highest increases they had seen.

NORRIS: It almost seems like they're apologizing for having to hit you in the wallet.

Ms. NEFF: Well, I mean, you know, I filled up my Toyota Corolla this morning and, you know, it was $31. I mean, I remember when it was $15 to fill it up. So all of that is impacting on the meals that we give our students.

NORRIS: At this point you're still - even with the price increase - you're still able to limit the overall price of a student meal to $2.

Ms. NEFF: Yes.

NORRIS: That's an important threshold for you?

Ms. NEFF: Absolutely. And, you know, one of the reasons we can do it, you know, the government does provide commodities such as chicken and canned pineapple tidbits and peaches, and so that helps to supplement our food program.

NORRIS: Are you concerned that if you have to keep raising prices that some students might not be able to afford breakfast or lunch?

Ms. NEFF: Well, I really don't know the impact? I've had cafeteria managers say that they anticipate a decrease in participation in school meals, that more people may start packing. So, you know, I don't know. I do know we're going to take it as a challenge and I want to increase participation. And we are trying to do all kinds of, you know, neat and healthy stuff for the students.

NORRIS: Sandy Neff, it's been wonderful to talk to you.

Ms. NEFF: Thanks.

NORRIS: Sandy Neff coordinates the food service program for 21 schools in Augusta County. That's in north central Virginia.

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