Rising food costs have hit not only the family pocketbook, but the school cafeteria’s cash register as well.

Some area districts have raised the price of school lunches to keep up with rapidly escalating food costs. Some have found ways to save while not sacrificing the quality of food they serve to children.

“It’s those little-end decimals that really add up,” said James Remete, director of food services for Marana Unified School District.

Marana schools stayed ahead of the curve on food costs, having last year raised the price of elementary school lunches 25 cents to $1.75 and high school lunches to $1.85.

It was the first time school officials raised prices in eight years, Remete said last Thursday while standing amid a flurry of kitchen workers at Twin Peaks Elementary School.

The new prices have helped stave off some of the more dramatic spikes in food costs hitting consumers across the country.

Remete said one way the district has been able avoid some of the cost increases that plague other districts is through buying directly from producers.

For several years, the district has been part of statewide cooperative. Remete said the purchasing power Marana gets by teaming up with more than 100 other districts across the state to buy food helps to keep costs stable.

Last year, the district bought more than a million half-pint cartons of milk. In such volume, even a minor price fluctuation can mean thousands of dollars on top of an already $375,000 milk bill.

While Marana’s milk costs have increased by just a fraction of a percent, dairy prices across the country are up nearly 10 percent since June 2007.

“Food prices are rising faster now than they have in almost 15 years,” said Ephraim Leibtag, an economist with the USDA.

Leibtag said oil and corn share at least some of the blame for the rapid rise.

The push toward more renewable fuels has helped drive up the price of corn as more farmers fill land once used to grow food staples with corn earmarked for ethanol.

“A growing share of corn is going toward ethanol,” Leibtag said.

Perhaps as much as 30 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is destined for ethanol distilleries as opposed to roughly 10 percent just a decade earlier.

The cost of gasoline has also contributed to the rising price of food.

High oil prices drive up the production costs of almost every product sold in the country.

At the retail level, a family of four in 2006 paid $8,543 a year for food. That same family likely will spend $9,329 in 2008.

In fact, household food costs have been rising steadily by 4 to 5 percent every year. Still, the scenario has been worse in recent decades.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, food price inflation was hovering at about 10 percent a year,” Leibtag said.

The USDA economist said he doesn’t expect a return of those extreme fluctuations any time soon.   

The federal government recently took steps to alleviate the effects of growing food costs on school budgets.

The USDA decided to raise reimbursement levels for the free and reduced school lunch program.

Districts will get $2.57 from the government to help pay for each free lunch, a full 10-cent increase. Reduced lunches are reimbursed at $2.17 per lunch, also a 10-cent jump.

“This was the largest reimbursement we’ve ever seen,” Remete said, adding that the normal annual adjustment ranges below five cents.

The extra pennies can add up to big savings for a district like Marana that has nearly 30 percent of its 16,000 students participating in the free and reduced lunch program.

“The prices are not affecting what the students are getting,” said Remete.

The district serves 9,000 meals a day. About 70 percent of students buy school lunches.

Even with the recent increase, Remete said the school lunches are bargain for parents.

“A parent can’t go to Fry’s and put together lunch for a $1.75,” Remete said.

Chicken nuggets, pizza, corn dogs, fruit, salad and vegetables were on the menu at Twin Peaks. Getting the students to eat the vegetables, though, that’s another story.

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