LAND O'LAKES — If it's Friday in Pasco County, it must be mini carrot day in the school cafeterias.
Kids love them — especially when dipped into ranch dressing. They're cheaper than tomatoes, which the district stopped buying this year to save some cash.
And because they come sealed in plastic bags, the unopened carrots can go back in the refrigerator for another meal — which is why the district now serves them on Fridays instead of salad, whose leftovers can wither over the weekend.
Soaring food prices and school budget cuts have converged in Pasco's cafeterias, with officials scrutinizing every menu item in search of ways to economize.
Rick Kurtz, director of the school district's food and nutrition services department, is trying to ensure that the food price crunch doesn't take its toll on student nutrition.
But expect to see some changes in the offerings: less fresh fruit and vegetables, smaller juice boxes, fewer choices of milk and more servings of bread replaced with graham crackers.
Food services has already cut its spending 10 percent this year. It has instructions to cut another 15 percent for next year.
And yet the department projects that its food and paper products costs will rise $1-million in the next year. That represents about 3.5 percent of the $29-million operation.
The district finance office has told food services it must be self-sufficient: The general operating budget has no room to cover deficits from the cafeterias.
Employees aren't expected to lose their jobs, but they will see a reduction in hours. The main cafeteria meal won't increase in price (at least for now), but prices will go up for the a la carte items such as chips and sports drinks, which so many high schoolers in particular consume.
And many of the choices that students get in the lunch line either have changed or will soon.
"We used to do fresh fruit and vegetables five days a week," Kurtz said. "We have reduced it to three days a week."
That will go down to two days a week next school year. In the place of the fresh items, kids get prepackaged frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, which saves on the staff and paper costs of having fresh items placed in paper cups.
Students used to be able to select from about six types of milk. Soon they'll have just two choices: 1 percent white and 1/2 percent chocolate. The district annually serves 8.5-million pints of milk at a cost of about 23 cents each, up 33 percent since August.
Fortified bread will give way to graham crackers, which are nutritionally similar, at breakfast a couple of days each week. Bread prices have jumped about 44 percent since September, making bread twice as expensive as graham crackers.
Juice boxes will shrink to 6 ounces from 8 ounces, to save about $7,500 a year, and they'll give way to frozen juice bars twice a week, to save a couple of cents more per serving.
Even the two most popular items — pizza and chicken nuggets — could get replaced with less expensive versions.
The district also is looking to change the way it counts calories, which could affect the nutritional value of each meal.
Kurtz said he and other food service directors around Florida have urged the state Department of Education to allow cafeterias to count the calories for meals as planned, rather than as served.
For example: One student might take lunch with bread, while another might not take the bread. But for the purposes of meeting federal nutrition guidelines, the meals would be considered the same because the bread was offered.
Students who bypass the bread would miss out on those calories and nutrients. But, Kurtz said, "It doesn't make any sense to us to put something on the plate to have it thrown away."
And, if such a change was made, the districts would benefit by not serving any unwanted bread, saving it for another day.
The savings will come in other areas too, ones that students won't necessarily see but that will affect operations.
Kurtz has appointed a team to review the way each cafeteria handles leftovers, to ensure that there's as little waste as possible. He expects to squeeze about $200,000 out of better leftover management.
Menus will run in three-week cycles instead of four, and will be printed every three months instead of monthly. That could save $1,000 per month in printing and distribution costs.
The department has revised its bread bid with its supplier, allowing for price fluctuations throughout the year in order to avoid an up-front increase based on imprecise expectations.
Even such items as the number of days each cafeteria worker wears a hair net before throwing it away are coming under scrutiny.
"We have told the superintendent that with everything we're doing to manage labor and food costs, we hope it will get us through" without a meal price increase, Kurtz said. "Our challenge is, every day things are going up."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
8.5m Pints of milk served in Pasco schools each year.
33 Percent increase in milk costs since August.
6 Types of milk currently offered.
2 Types of milk that will be offered soon.