As school cafeterias tighten belts, Pinellas prices to stay firm

Cuban sandwiches on sub rolls. Apples instead of more exotic fruits. Plums two days in a row.

Pinellas school officials are hoping these small sacrifices will delay a move that could be much harder for many families to handle: higher meal prices.

The district is not alone in looking for ways to combat skyrocketing food and fuel costs. School cafeterias across the country have scrambled in recent months to continue to provide economical, healthful meals for more than half of the nation's 60-million schoolchildren.

Some, like Hillsborough, have resorted to raising prices. After exhausting cost-saving steps like serving fresh fruit only twice a week, the district approved a 50-cent increase in school lunch prices for the coming year.

Pinellas officials say they'll do that only as a last resort.

"We've been reviewing our options," said Grey Miller, the district's director of food services. "There will be no difference in the quality, but there will be a difference in the variety."

Besides eliminating "specialty breads" and limiting the types of fruits and vegetables served to those that are in season, the district has re-evaluated bids on items such as cereal and milk. Switching to a new milk vendor will mean a savings of $150,000 over the next year, Miller said.

Additional belt-tightening measures include taking advantage of produce specials and using frozen dough instead of buying rolls from a bakery.

Sami Leigh Scott, president of the Pinellas School Advisory Council Association, applauded the district's efforts to make ends meet without raising prices. Paying an extra $10 a month per child for lunch would be "astronomical" for families whose income is too high to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches yet still struggle financially, Scott said.

Scott also cited a nutritional downside to higher meal prices: Parents who no longer could afford to pay for a school lunch possibly would start packing lunches that would be less healthful than what their kids receive at school. "It would be those little bags of chips and honey buns and Lunchables, which is just junk," Scott said.

Nikki Barfield, whose son Michael will start kindergarten next month at Pasadena Fundamental School, saw a teachable moment in the district's cost-cutting strategy. "It might teach kids there are times when you have to cut back," Barfield said. "I don't think it's a bad thing. I think it's just how times are."

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.

>>Fast facts

School lunch prices

Hillsborough

$2.25 for elementary

students

$2.75 for middle and

high school students

Pinellas

$1.75 for elementary

students

$2 for middle and high school students

Percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals

Hillsborough: 50 percent

Pinellas: 40 percent

Pasco: 44 percent

Hernando: 42 percent

As school cafeterias tighten belts, Pinellas prices to stay firm 07/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2008 5:10pm]

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