Alaska schools struggling to keep up with the cost of food

a lunch counter
The summer lunch spread at Petersburg Elementary School. (Thomas Copeland/KFSK)

Alongside Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes to education funding, Alaska schools are about to find out how much money they will receive from the federal government for school meals this year. As school districts look ahead at their 2024 budgets, many are under pressure because of steep inflation in the price of food.

On a recent Friday in June, the Petersburg Elementary School cafeteria was teeming with kids. Lunch lady Katy Brantuas knew them all by name. She asked a student named Natalie if she wanted teriyaki chicken or sweet chili chicken.

“Terry… terry chicken,” answered Natalie.

Along with the chicken, Brantuas prepared a full salad bar.

“From this end we’ve got lettuce, bean salad,” Brantuas said. “Fresh carrots and celery, some corn, cucumbers, roasted red peppers…”

In the summertime, the federal government covers this food for any child who wants it. But that’s not the case during the school year. When the semester starts back up in this fall, Alaska schools have access to less funding for school meals, which means they will have to face the full force of inflation. 

Carlee Johnson McIntosh is in charge of the meals at Petersburg schools. She’s watched the cost of her food orders skyrocket. 

“If you look at chicken, which we use quite often — that has doubled in price compared to what you were able to get it in 2020 or 2021,” said McIntosh.

According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of food in schools has shot up this year by a chart-topping 294%.

“In 2010, when I started, a weekly grocery bill was about $2,000,” said McIntosh. “Now, at the end of 2023 school year, one week’s worth of groceries is about $5,000. But the biggest part of that is over the past two years.”

How school meals are paid for during the semester gets pretty complicated. Basically, the federal government reimburses Alaska schools for many of the meals they serve, but not all of them. Depending on household income, some kids are eligible for free meals, some are eligible for reduced meals, and some pay full price.

In Petersburg, more than 60 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced meals. That’s a little under the statewide average of three-quarters. In the last year, schools have been able to claw back between $6 and $7 for each free or reduced meal. The problem is, that reimbursement rate just hasn’t kept up with soaring food bills. That leaves schools with two options. The first is to get thrifty.

“We try to do buy bulk orders to help reduce the cost,” said McIntosh. “Then we plan menus that if we have any leftovers of one day, we can easily use it in another thing without having any waste or overhead and leftover product.”

The second option is to increase the prices for the students who do pay. And that’s exactly what the Petersburg School District plans to do. Officials will propose a 25-cent increase to the standard meal charge at the next school board meeting in August.

It might not seem like much, but five days a week for a few children and the quarters start to add up. But even if they do both of those things, many Alaska schools will still feel the pinch. Trevor Bridgewater is the president of the Alaska School Nutrition Association.

“It’s definitely a fact that schools are caught between the rising costs of food and a stagnant reimbursement rate,” Bridgewater said. “And we are constantly behind the curve on how to fund our programs.”

Bridgewater says Alaska schools face an additional problem.

“Unlike other states, the state of Alaska does not provide any additional reimbursement monies to school nutrition programs,” she said.

The federal reimbursement rates for 2024 are expected any day now. Bridgewater says that if the rate increase isn’t enough, schools may have to search for cutbacks — maybe some big ones.

“[It means] literally whether or not certain schools can afford to continue serving meals in schools,” Bridgewater said. “The other option is to look at food products that cost less and food products that cost less are usually of lesser quality.”

Back in Petersburg, cutbacks of any kind could face stiff resistance from already picky cafeteria customers.

“I don’t like it when they serve banana bread,” said one student.

“I don’t like spaghetti,” said another.

“I don’t like the carrot very much,” said a third.

With 72 kids fed, that just left the washing up.

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