On Friday, Peggy Hamilton serves lunch to kindergarten student Maia Kamerling in the cafeteria line at Center Street Elementary School in Oneonta as Tanya Roberts cuts pizza dippers. (Star photo by Julie Lewis)

"School food programs are in trouble," according to Bainbridge-Guilford Central School food-service director Kathy Benedict.

Costs for food and benefits are rising, while reimbursement rates are relatively unchanged, she said, so some programs are breaking even while others are struggling.

Many districts are looking at increasing prices, among other ways to bolster their breakfast and lunch programs. Meanwhile, parents willing to talk about the service this week said that it still represents a value.

The school programs are affected by everything that is happening in the marketplace, said Deb Bestwick, a purchasing agent for a DCMO BOCES program that assists schools in this area.

The consortium purchases food for more than 50 districts, including most area schools.

"The increasing fuel and food prices have all had an big impact on the bottom line," she said.

Prices for most items are locked in place for six months, she said, but bids open now show that increases will continue. For example, a 10-pound package of macaroni that was $5.38 in 2007 will be $7.11 starting in August, and a six 48-ounce cans of tuna will be going from $32.50 in 2007 to $44.65 for the start of the next school year. A 5-pound block of cheese that was $8.27 in 2005 will be $12.11 when bids go into effect.

For lunches, federal and state subsidies provide reimbursement to area schools of about $2.55 for students who qualify for free lunch based on income. For those who qualify for reduced costs, the rate is about $2.30, and the reimbursement rate for full-price lunches is $0.30, according to information from a school official.

A family of four has to make less than $39,220 to qualify for reduced price and less than $27,560 for free meals, a second school official said.

The prices schools charge for full-priced meals vary, with rates ranging from $1.10 for elementary school lunch at Unadilla Valley Central School to $2.00 for middle/high school lunch at Bainbridge-Guilford. The programs are designed to be self-sustaining, though some districts provide support.

At B-G, where there about 1,000 students, 49 percent of whom get free or reduced lunch, the cost for the basic high school meal is about $3.10 per serving, Benedict said. The difference is made up through revenue from sources such as chips and other snacks that students can purchase. Such items can provide as much as a 50 percent profit.

It is difficult to be self-supporting with labor and benefit costs constantly rising, Benedict said.

She usually tries to increase full-meal prices about 5 cents per year to keep up with costs. But she was not sure if the board of education would support that this year.

"We are in a hard place right now with rising food and fuel costs," she said.

The last time there was a staff cut was five years ago, she said, but she will be reviewing the situation for her five full-time and six part-time workers. She is working on a budget for a future board presentation.

Parent Ed McFee, who is also a teacher at B-G, said that his fifth-grade daughter buys lunch.

"I would not be surprised if there is an increase," he said. "With prices going up in the store, I would imagine they would go up all over."

Milford projects price increase

The situation is similar at Milford Central School, where food service manager Sabine Curry said she is looking at food increases of 8 to 15 percent. The average cost of a meal is about $2.70, she said. She also usually increases prices about 5 cents a year, but that might not be enough. The decision will be made by the board of education.

Full-price meals cost $1.55 in high school, with $0.25 for reduced price.

Curry said she will be working to inform families of the availability of free and reduced meals. Parents submit their information on a standardized form, and districts sample a small number of participants to audit the totals, officials said.

The Milford district has seen a decline in applications for the cost-savings program, to about 44 percent. It had been about 50 percent a couple of years ago. With the personal identification system that is being used by most schools, Curry said, participation is confidential.

If more families participated, both they and the school would benefit, she said.

Some districts prepare menus by components, she said, making sure to serve items in all groups, such as bread, meat or a meat alternative, dairy, fruit and vegetables.

But she uses a computer program to offer more items based on nutritional standards for calories, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and fats. This provides more variety and better participation, she said.

Oneonta parents not surprised

The management situation is a little different at Oneonta City Schools, where about 33 percent of the approximately 2,000 students receive free and reduced lunch.

The service has traditionally been run by an outside contractor, said Deputy Superintendent Thomas Austin. One of the benefits of this system is a savings on labor and benefit costs.

The price for a full-cost lunch will increase by 30 cents in the middle and high schools, to $1.75, and increase by 5 cents in elementary, to $1.50, he said.

With the cost of food having gone up, and a slight decrease in enrollment, Austin said, the money was needed to keep the program in the black for the district and its food-service contractor. For the last several years, that contractor was Aramark, but they have not submitted a bid, Austin said.

The last time the price was raised was in 2006-07, when the raise was 5 cents. There was no impact on participation, he said.

With the multiple offerings the high school provides, Oneonta is able to keep prices reasonable, he said.

A couple of Oneonta parents said they were not concerned with the increase. Paul Bischoff, a professor at the State University College at Oneonta, said he has two children in elementary school and one in middle school.

He said he is thankful that he is in a position where "I'm not even going to notice it. Everything is going up on the planet."

Barbara Agoglia has a son who gets full-price lunch at Greater Plains Elementary. With increases at the grocery store fairly common, she said, she was not surprised to learn of the changes.

If she packed a lunch, she said, it would probably cost more than what she will pay the school.

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