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Schoolchildren across the country are headed back to class this week. And if you're a parent packing junior's lunch right now, here's some food for thought: Rising food and gas prices are taking a big bite out school cafeteria budgets. Marketplace's Steve Henn has the next in our series of "Back to School" reports.
Steve Henn: It's lunchtime in Arlington County Virginia and this pack of 4 year olds in public pre-school is hungry.
Henn: What is your favorite school lunch?
Jaden: Chicken nuggets
Henn: Ah, so this is a good day. What else do you have on your plate?
Jaden: Chicken nuggets…Grape…milk… special milk.
Jaden doesn't mention his steamed carrots. He doesn't eat them either. But every kid in his class served a balanced lunch. And the cost is sky-rocketing. Consider this -- the price of an 8 once carton of milk rose by 10 cents last year. Arlington serves 10,000 cartons of milks a day. Amy McClosky runs the County's school lunch program.
Amy McClosky: We ended up in the red. But we're working on changing our choices and offering maybe less choices but still good quality.
That means more fish sticks - and fewer options. McClosky raised prices too. Still, it may not be enough.
McClosky: This is going to be a tough year. But, on the other side, it's a tough year for families. Everybody is struggling.
Food and gas prices are up. Lower home values mean school districts have less money. Schools want their lunch programs to support themselves, even turn a profit. Barbara Belmont has headed the School Nutrition Association for 15 years.
Barbara Belmont: I don't recall any time that times have been as difficult as they are now for our members. And so they are looking for additional sources of revenue.
One way to place to look -- cookies, chips and packaged drinks. Recently there's been a push to get junk food out of schools. But Margo Wootan at the Center for Science in the Public Interest that's changing.
Margo Wootan: Many school food service directors are turning to selling junk food in order to make ends meet.
Wootan and Belmont want more federal money for school lunches, but for now school systems are scrambling. In most states, schools can still legally sell Snickers bars and Gator-aid a la carte. These sneaks don't meet federal dietary guidelines, but Belmont says they're a money-maker. And for many school lunch programs, that's the bottom line.
In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.