Cafeteria workers set out food at Roosevelt Middle School in Oklahoma, August 11, 2022
Doug Hoke—USA TODAY NETWORK/Reuters
August 15, 2022 3:57 PM EDT

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.

Although schools are racing to find innovative solutions, millions of families could be burdened with paying extra for breakfast and lunch this year. Now that the federal pandemic-era meal waivers allowing all students to eat for free have expired, the cost for lunch may be close to $5 a day in some districts, or $900 over an entire school year, nearly twice as much as it cost in 2017.

“I worry about kids going hungry,” says Jennifer Bove, food and nutrition director at East Hampton Public Schools in Connecticut.

The struggles schools face

Almost every food item that Shannon Gleave, director of food and nutrition at the Glendale Elementary School District in Arizona, ordered for the coming school year costs significantly more than it did in 2021. Cans of diced pears cost 24% more than last year; a case of hamburger patties costs 21% more; and a case of cereal is up nearly 9%. 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. Milk cartons are 6 to 7% more expensive, while fruit is up 10 cents per serving. In a district that serves around 80,000 lunches and 50,000 breakfasts a day, those cost increases add up quickly. “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. Paper products and cleaning supplies have also skyrocketed in cost over the last year. Gleave says the trays used to serve salads are two times more expensive.

As some districts respond by raising the prices students, families and taxpayers pay, others warn that higher prices may have harmful effects on student nutrition, particularly in lower-income districts like Glendale, where roughly 94% of the student body is enrolled in the free and reduced 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.”

For families, price increases may be substantial. At East Hampton Public Schools in central Connecticut, where meals cost $3 at elementary schools and $4.50 at high schools, the district is already anticipating a $0.50 increase per meal. “I don’t know how we can break even without doing it,” Bove says.

Since the federal pandemic waivers expired, families that are eligible to receive free or reduced price meals must submit an application this year. A family of four earning $36,075 or less is eligible for free meals and one earning $51,338 or less is eligible for reduced price meals ($0.30 for breakfast and $0.40 cents for lunch), according to the School Nutrition Association.

What’s causing higher prices

Economists say a number of factors contributed to the rise in food costs, particularly supply chain disruptions induced by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which led to a spike in wheat prices. A deadly avian flu also tanked U.S. egg production, and severe droughts in Latin America and the high cost of fuel, labor and packaging have also contributed.

Many school nutrition programs are also facing severe staffing shortages. 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.

The role of pandemic-era funds

During the pandemic, school meals were entirely free in public schools for families of every income. That program expired in June, making eligibility more complicated and with more administrative hurdles.

“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.”

This year, California and Maine will become the first states to offer universal free school meals, but in most places, the higher cost of food will be passed along to parents, who are required to submit the proper paperwork to prove their income meets eligibility requirements.

“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.”

Finding creative solutions

Saddled by rising costs and supply chain issues, some school districts are implementing creative solutions to lower costs including leasing warehouse space with other districts to store bulk items.

The East Hampton school district is working with local vendors this year to source cheaper produce and eliminate supply chain disruptions. Bove says she found a local farm that sells a case of apples for $35, compared to the $65 the district would normally pay its vendor. “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.

Some districts are also planning to make their own meals rather than relying on pre-made items. Schools with bread mixers are making rolls from scratch, while others are growing fresh fruit and vegetables to cut back on canned foods, which cost more to package and lead to excess waste.

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. The main way schools recoup their expenses is by raising 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.

Meanwhile, Congress is providing some relief to school districts struggling to offset 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.

But even as inflation and supply chain issues show signs of fading, food prices globally remain high. Nearly every food item in U.S. grocery stores costs more than it did a year ago, with prices soaring 13.1% over the last 12 months, the largest annual increase in 43 years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said last Wednesday.

“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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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com.

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