WASHINGTON — As a new school year begins, school food service directors indicated their most pressing concerns were securing adequate funding and the rising costs of food and food preparation, according to a report issued in August by the School Nutrition Association. At the same time, food service directors indicated continuing progress in efforts to provide students more nutritious and healthful food choices.

The S.N.A. report, "School Nutrition Operations Report: The State of School Nutrition 2009," was based on 1,207 survey responses from food service directors from school districts across 49 states. The last such survey was conducted by the S.N.A. before the start of the 2007-08 school year.

"The survey results show that despite the difficult economy, school nutrition professionals continue to provide children with high-quality, nutritious foods and educate them on making the right food choices," said Dora Rivas, executive director of food and child nutrition services for the Dallas independent school district and president of the S.N.A.

More than 77% of the school food service directors surveyed said funding and the cost of food and food preparation were the most pressing issues facing school cafeteria programs. Nearly 60% of school districts raised school lunch prices this year in an attempt to keep up with the higher costs. In comparison, only about a third of school districts raised meal prices before the 2007-08 school year. The median price hike for a school lunch in 2009 was 25c compared with a median increase of 15c in 2007.

The S.N.A. said the survey lent urgency to its call for Congress to provide an additional 35c to school districts for each reimbursable school meal. Current federal reimbursements equal $2.57 for each "free" school meal served under the National School Lunch Program. The average cost of preparing a school lunch was $2.92.

"The increase would help programs keep pace with rising costs of providing students healthy, nutritious meals," the S.N.A. said.

The S.N.A. survey indicated school districts will use a larger portion of their U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity allotment this year than in 2007. The S.N.A. said nearly 42% of school districts will use their full allotment this year, up from about 34% in 2007, and 78% of districts will use at least 80% of their allotments this year. On average, each school district will use 90% of its allotment compared with 88% as the 2007 average.

The largest share of respondents, 44%, indicated they use their U.S.D.A. commodity allotments mainly to purchase processed commodities, about 23% use their allotments to purchase raw commodities, with most of the remaining districts using their allotments to purchase equal amounts of processed and raw commodities.

Meat, cheese/dairy and fruits and vegetables are the items most commonly purchased with commodity dollars, the food service directors indicated. Meat and cheese/dairy products are especially emphasized with more than 9 of every 10 districts reporting they used federal commodity allotment dollars to purchase these items. Fruits and vegetables are somewhat less common purchases with 82% of directors using allotment dollars to purchase these items.

The food service directors indicated paid school meal participation rates in 2009 dropped a small amount compared with 2007 at the elementary and high school levels for lunch and at the middle school and high school levels for breakfast. In contrast, participation rates for free or reduced-price meals increased for both breakfast and lunch across all grade levels.

The survey indicated school nutrition programs have increased healthful food options with peak gains seen in vegetarian offerings, up a little more than 12% since 2007, and low-fat prepared/packaged foods up nearly 12%. Locally grown fruits and vegetables were included in more menus with 37% of school districts indicating they offered these items. Another 21% of districts indicated they were considering offering locally grown produce.

A majority of districts (65%) have not banned any foods due to food allergies, the survey indicated. Only about 1 in 10 districts have banned certain foods in all of their schools, and an additional 22% have done so in some schools. Peanuts were the most commonly banned food with nearly 96% of districts with a food ban in place targeting peanuts.

The survey indicated offerings of ethnic foods in school cafeterias continued to grow with the percentage of districts offering specific ethnic foods increasing in nearly every category since 2005. Mexican food continued to be the most popular ethnic food category (offered by 99% of districts) followed by Asian food (offered by 81% of districts).

Nearly 36% of districts reported their food service programs offer restaurant-branded or restaurant-catered items. This was particularly true of the larger districts.

A majority of districts prepare at least some of their bakery items, entrees and side dishes from scratch. Entrees and side dishes are commonly prepared from scratch in at least 94% of the districts. Bakery items are prepared from scratch in about 74% of districts.

For additional information on the S.N.A.’s comprehensive survey of school food service directors, visit www.schoolnutrition.org.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 1, 2009, starting on Page 22.