RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Food prices have hit some schools hard, which means more cost cutting measures when schools get back in the fall. Tina Antolini of member station WFCR visited one cafeteria in New England just before the school year ended last Friday.
Ms. JOANNE LENNON (District Food Services Director, Massachusetts): You want a fajita, hon? Those are pork burgers.
TINA ANTOLINI: It's evident from the mood of the cafeteria at Fairview Middle School in Chicopee, Massachusetts, that summer vacation is only a few days off. Kids barely stay long enough to shovel in the day's menu of pork burgers and chicken fajitas with pineapple for dessert. But district food services director Joanne Lennon is already worried she won't be able to serve some of these items next year.
Ms. LENNON: I'm concerned about my hamburger rolls next year. I mean, we're serving those today. Pineapple, it's hard to find and the price of that is astronomical. So I might have to probably, maybe not even buy pineapple next year.
ANTOLINI: And pineapple is just the start. All sorts of cafeteria staples, from bread to paper products, are rising in price. Lennon says right now she's been told to expect about an 8 percent jump in the cost of food for next year.
Ms. LENNON: We don't know. There's so many unexpected things that just keep on popping up, saying oh, my God. Corn's going to go $8 a bushel. So right now it's 8 percent, but maybe in October it could be 15 percent.
ANTOLINI: Lennon had a taste of sticker shock this year when milk prices rose 21 percent, an added expense of almost $60,000 to her overall budget of three million a year. She handled that by raising the price of the a la carte items the school cafeterias offer, like individual cookies and juice drinks. But such patches only go so far. And while cafeterias do get a certain amount of what they spend on each lunch reimbursed by the federal government, Lennon says that reimbursement just isn't keeping pace with this year's inflation.
Ms. LENNON: We get maybe a $.03 increase a year per meal from the federal government, and no way is that going to cover this cost.
ANTOLINI: It's gotten bad enough that many districts are raising lunch prices for next year. Lennon says she's holding off, because any rise in price could mean a drop off in the number of student customers she has, which could further gouge her bottom line. And more than half of the students in her district come from low-income families.
Ms. LENNON: And if I can help the parents out by not going up on something else - they're already paying high prices for gas, for their home food they're paying a lot more - so I said, well, if I can keep at least lunch prices the same, maybe they'll still be able to afford to give them a nutritious lunch every day.
ANTOLINI: So Chicopee is finding other ways to fill the gaps. Extras like Jell-o and cake are out. And Fairview cook manager Susan Lacaste(ph) says one day's leftover spaghetti goes into the next day's soup.
Ms. SUSAN LACASTE (Cook Manager, Fairview Middle School): And now we're cooking more from scratch. That's going to save a lot, with our soups and our sauces are all from scratch, rather than frozen or pre-made.
ANTOLINI: But not all school districts are equipped to do anything more than just reheat. Joanne Lennon says because of her district's kitchen ingenuity, the food price increases haven't yet interfered with her ability to provide nutritious meals for kids. But it is a precarious balance. Just try making a healthful paper bag lunch for $1.60 a pop.
For NPR News, I'm Tina Antolini.
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