AUGUSTA, Maine - Despite federal increases in subsidies for school nutrition programs and expanded state aid for school breakfast programs, many schools across Maine are looking to cut staff and reduce menu options as food prices continue to increase.
“This next school year is going to be tough, but the next year is going to be tougher if we don’ t see something that holds down food prices,” said Walter Beesley, director of the Maine Department of Education’ s school nutrition program. “We did have an increase this year in the federal reimbursement rate, but it is not keeping pace with increased costs.”
Beesley said the Education Department and nutrition directors across the state anticipated the rapidly increasing food costs earlier this year and held a conference to discuss ways to stretch funding.
“From that we developed a list of things that schools may do to hold down costs — a lot are things that some schools are already doing, but not all,” he said.
For example, the largest cost for schools is the staff that prepares and serves the food, not the food itself. Barbara Page, president of the Maine School Nutrition Association and food services director in SAD 6, said some schools already have taken steps to reduce staff and hours and have consolidated the administration of food services.
“We are seeing staff layoffs and in some cases consolidation of the administrators,” she said. “I expect we will see more.”
SAD 6, which is composed of towns in northern York and southern Cumberland counties, is part of a southern Maine purchasing co-op that Page said has stepped up its efforts to negotiate for lower prices and adopt new policies to address the higher costs.
“Some of the prices have almost doubled,” she said. “We are making all the changes we can and still maintain[ing] nutritional standards.”
Page said it is an unfortunate fact that the more nutritious foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are the most expensive in some cases because of the higher transportation costs from other states.
“We are encouraging schools [to] work with local farmers to buy local produce,” she said. “But we haven’ t been as successful as we would like.”
Another step many schools already have taken to cope with higher prices is to remove items from the menu. Noelle Scott, nutrition director for Bangor’ s schools, said some students held one-day boycotts of the school cafeterias this past school year over menu changes.
“We eliminated whoopie pies and they didn’ t like that,” she said. “And when we took nachos and cheese off the menu, that was a big deal. They didn’ t like that.”
But, Scott said, the increasing costs of providing those items led to the decision to take them off the menu. She said other food items may have to be removed as costs continue to increase.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the things they like are expensive,” she said.
University of Maine professor Kathryn Musgrave, who has taught nutrition for years, said schools face a tough task of putting together nutritious menus that are affordable and that students will eat.
“The foods that you can buy to get the most calories for your money are your least nutrient-dense foods,” she said. “The chicken thighs and drumsticks are cheaper than the chicken breast, and yet they have a lot more saturated fat.”
Musgrave said the expansion this year of the school breakfast program passed by the Legislature will allow more schools to join in what she calls a very important program for learning.
“It is just heartbreaking to see the children that show up in school that have not had breakfast,” she said. “Children that are hungry do not learn as well as those that are not hungry. We have many studies on that.”
The school lunch and breakfast programs, much of them federally funded, have a significant economic impact on the state. More than 2,000 Mainers work in school food preparation, and the Education Department estimates that all food-related expenditures by schools this year will be more than $81 million.
Children whose families have incomes at 130 percent of the federal poverty level or lower are eligible for free meals in Maine schools. Children whose families earn between 130 percent and 180 percent of the federal poverty level pay a reduced price of no more than 40 cents.
In 2008, the poverty level for a family of four is $27,560 figured on a yearly basis.
Schools set the cost of lunch and breakfast at the local level, but the state sets the maximum price. This year it is $2.50 for lunch, but schools can ask for a waiver to charge more.
“There is a lot of interest this year in waivers,” Beesley said.