ST. LOUIS - Soaring food and fuel costs could affect school cafeterias this school year.
A nutrition expert at Washington University in St. Louis says districts will have to get creative to continue providing nutritional food as they battle rising costs.
"I think we will see a definite shift toward local foods and other ways to stretch the food dollar while still maintaining healthy meals for children," said Connie Diekman, who in addition to serving as university nutrition director is the past president of the American Dietetic Association.
Food prices are up because of poor crop yields, increasing use of corn for fuel and the rising costs of transporting food across the country.
One way to save money is to cut down on portion sizes.
"Obviously, if we can bring portion sizes down to a more appropriate level, it will help tremendously with expenses," Diekman said. "This is a great opportunity for schools to examine healthy portion sizes, which not only improve the health of students, but cut down on costs as well."
Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program must meet nutritional standards, but Diekman said they can use creativity to help reduce costs.
"Districts will probably need to do more seasonal thinking when it comes to food choices," she said. "While fresh berries might be too expensive in the winter at some schools, oranges or grapefruit might not."
Schools can also use more frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. Diekman said they are just as nutritionally sound as fresh produce.
Using local foods cuts down on shipping costs and helps with environmental sustainability, Diekman said.
She knows it won't be easy.
"I suspect that for most districts it is going to be a challenge, even with their creativity, because food costs have just taken off," Diekman said.