School lunches scaled back by higher costs and supply chain issues

High inflation is not only squeezing family budgets across America — it is also hitting school cafeterias. The rising cost of food and ongoing disruptions to the supply chain are shrinking what's on the menu for students across the country.

Some districts have been forced to pull back or make substitutions to deal with the spiraling cost of key ingredients. At Meade Middle School in Maryland's Anne Arundel County, the cafeteria staff has had to improvise. They used to offer five entrees a day, but now it's down to just one.

Elijah Lee, an eighth-grader at the school, has noticed what many students nationwide are seeing.

"We had no more condiments like ketchup and mustard and the ranch, which I loved," he told CBS News correspondent Scott MacFarlane.

At some schools, there are no more hamburgers or chicken patty sandwiches due to problems and the price of buying buns and ketchup. Instead, they offer more tacos or bunless options and try to navigate a shortage of healthy options like carrot sticks.

"Our students are very savvy. They know what they eat, what they want," said Jodi Risse, food and nutrition services supervisor for Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

She said that even the trays and plates have been in short supply.

"Plates became unavailable. We had to call those manufacturers and then develop those relationships to say, 'How do we best get the trays we need to service our students?'" Risse said.

A new survey of school districts nationwide, conducted by the School Nutrition Association, reveals 97% of meal programs reported challenges with higher costs while 98% acknowledged problems getting some menu items.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, a tray of lunch food is costing the district, one of America's largest, about 15% to 20% more than it did last year, said Jeanie Dawson, the district's chief of finance and operations.

Costs of some ingredients are so volatile that many U.S. schools are making last-minute changes to the monthly menu, which used to be set in stone.

"So we are down to weekly menu planning, and our families and even our students and staff are not used to that," Dawson said.

The district was also planning to serve vegan sauces and vegan soups because such items are actually easier to procure right now.

School lunch costs are poised to rise again on July 1, when an emergency measure enacted at the start of the pandemic expires. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has been offering schools $4.56 reimbursement for every meal served, will reduce that reimbursement to pre-pandemic levels — $3.75.

In Anne Arundel County, the school district could lose about $700,000 a month in reimbursement, Risse said.

"That's huge," she said. "That's going to be a big hit for us."

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