As more children depend on free and reduced-price school meals during the economic downturn, schools are grappling with rising costs that surpass the federal reimbursement rate for these meals, a national study has found.

According to a School Nutrition Association report, three-quarters of school nutrition directors surveyed nationwide said the National School Lunch Program Reimbursement did not cover costs of producing a meal in 2008-2009, nor do they anticipate the reimbursement to cover costs this school year.

"Schools are getting squeezed by federal reimbursements that simply do not keep pace with rising costs on everything from food and labor to napkins and spoons," said association president Dora Rivas.

The survey found the average cost to prepare and serve a school lunch that meets federal nutritional standards is $2.92, but the federal reimbursement is $2.68. An added 6-cent state reimbursement still leaves a substantial gap. The association is asking Congress to provide greater federal support for school meals during reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this fall.

On Long Island, officials in the Middle Country school district agree the costs of buying and preparing school food are rising at a rate that well exceeds increases in reimbursement rates.

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"As reimbursement margins shrink, the school food service program loses funds that can be used to offset big increases in lunch prices or to offset the higher costs typically involved with serving healthier and more nutritious meals," said William Kidd, the district's assistant business administrator.

>>COMPLETE COVERAGE: School lunches on Long Island