WASHINGTON – Schools that get turkey from the Agriculture Department are having to turn elsewhere this year for Thanksgiving lunches for students. There's not enough for the lunch program that feeds 29 million kids.
The problem is not a shortage of birds. They're just too skinny. An unusually hot summer resulted in smaller turkeys. That means supplies are tight, which means prices are a bit higher.
"Even though we've put out word we want to buy turkey, they're not selling it to USDA," said Billy Cox, spokesman for the Agricultural Marketing Service.
Supermarkets generally get first dibs on turkey and other commodities. When there is a surplus or prices are low enough, the Agriculture Department buys some and passes it along to government-subsidized food programs, like school lunches.
While the department is not providing turkey, schools aren't necessarily going without.
"We didn't change the menu," said Shirley Cox, food and nutrition director for Texarkana, Ark., public schools. "We just went ahead and bought turkey for 3,500 to 4,000 meals."
When Texarkana schools serve the Thanksgiving meal this Friday, lunch trays will have turkey, Southern-style cornmeal dressing with giblet gravy, green peas, candied sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce — and small cups of holiday ice cream.
The Agriculture Department's commodity program gives food to schools; the amount is based on how many free and reduced-price lunches a school serves.
The National Turkey Federation said there is plenty of turkey available for the nation's Thanksgiving.
"We do hope everybody will have the opportunity to have turkey at the table," said Sherrie Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the federation. "Even with markets tight this year, I'm sure there are other ways in which food banks or feeding programs are finding ways to provide."
While prices for turkey producers are the highest in years, Rosenblatt said grocery shoppers probably won't see it at the store.
"We're still seeing a lot of specials running throughout the country, where supermarkets are using whole turkeys as a way to get you into the store to buy the rest of your Thanksgiving dinner," she said.
Christmas should be better. Market conditions are easing, and the Agriculture Department is already buying turkey for delivery in December, said Susan Acker, spokeswoman for the Food and Nutrition Service, which runs the school lunch program.
The National School Lunch Program works like this:
— To qualify for free school lunches, a family's income must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level — about $21,580 for a family of three.
— Reduced price lunches, costing up to 40 cents a meal, are available for children in families making 185 percent of the poverty level, about $30,710 for a family of three.