It doesn't happen often that students and school administrators find common ground so quickly, but a single question has united them for the time being: What's up with the cost of a school lunch?

Kids at the high school are so steamed over higher prices for their French fries and tacos that some have begun brown-bagging lunch. And for four days earlier this month, one enterprising senior capitalized on the discontent by running a take-out business that sold sandwiches from Humphrey's bakery within school walls.

Last week, school leaders joined the fray, calling for an investigation into a $14,000 deficit incurred over the last two years by the lunch operation at the Up-Island Regional School District, which comprises the West Tisbury and Chilmark Schools.

All three schools are served by Chartwells, a division of Compass Group, an institutional food service provider based in Charlotte, N.C. The Oak Bluffs School cut ties with Chartwells and began running its own kitchen this September after several years of deficits, according to Vineyard schools superintendent Kriner Cash.

School officials aren't blaming Chartwells, but Mr. Cash said this week that it might be time for more schools to get back into the food service business. Edgartown and Tisbury also run their own lunchrooms.

"We've been moving back into that domain, where we can, to manage it ourselves. We think it's the preferable way," said Mr. Cash.

New technology piloted two years ago at the Edgartown School, he said, enables the schools to track not only revenue but the young diners themselves.

"Parents can send in $20, and this debits it down," the superintendent said. "It helps us with monthly reporting, state reports and the free and reduced lunches without labeling the kids. It's unobtrusive."

But for the three remaining schools who have contracted food service with Chartwells, the bookkeeping appears to have become very messy. Auditors noted the deficits at the two up-Island schools, and now it's up to the in-house number crunchers to sort out why revenue is falling short of expenses.

Delivery costs are one factor - food prepared at the high school is transported every day to West Tisbury and Chilmark. But officials aren't sure about other reasons.

"We need to find out what comprises the deficits, whether we're talking about salaries or food costs," said Elaine Pace, principal of the West Tisbury School.

As it turns out, running a school cafeteria is a balancing act, according to Ms. Pace.

"I have never worked in a school district where the cafeteria has not been a problem. It happens to be a sensitive area," she said. "If we get too healthy, the kids don't buy. If it's too unhealthy, the parents don't like it. It's very much a public-relations act to run a cafeteria program."

At both the high school and West Tisbury School, students can choose between a government-approved full meal and a la carte purchases. High school food service manager Rick Akerley, who works for Chartwells, estimates that roughly 60 per cent of the lunch-buying population opts for a variety of a la carte items ranging from bagels and French fries to subs, cheese sticks and pizza.

Mr. Akerley raised prices this September on nine separate items by 25 cents. A small order of fries went from 90 cents to $1.15, a 27 per cent increase. The price of a cup of soup is now $1.

"As far as the high school is concerned, we're just about breaking even," said Mr. Akerley. "Our last increase was in 1997. It would have been outrageous not to have an increase this year. We would have been going into the hole."

The price of a full meal still stands at $1.75, but you couldn't find anyone Tuesday eating off one of the bargain trays that come with one protein, two fruit or vegetable portions, one starch item and a milk.

Schools are reimbursed by the state at a rate of just over 25 cents a plate for each full meal ordered. But the a la carte menu is far more popular even as it remains the target for complaints.

"It's the same food for more money," said senior Jesse Wiener.

His friend, Wade Meacham, a junior, just paid almost $5 for a sandwich, salad and cheese sticks. "It's ridiculous. I didn't even get a drink with this," said Mr. Meacham, who was trying to gulp his food before the bell ending the 20-minute lunch break.

"For $2, you could buy a good lunch last year. Now it's $5 with a soda," said Valci Neto, a sophomore. "More kids are packing lunch now."

Other students are simply glad for the chance to engage in the favored high school pastime of blasting the quality of cafeteria food. "Not only is the food disgusting, it's way overpriced," said Chelsea Boyd, a senior. Three weeks ago, Giles Welch, a senior with a work-study pass that allowed him to leave campus in the middle of the day, spotted the makings of a market in the midst of all this complaining. "No one wants to eat the food in the cafeteria," said the young entrepreneur. "But who doesn't want a sandwich from Humphrey's?" His enterprise was short-lived, but for a four-day period two weeks ago, Mr.Welch would take orders in the morning from students and teachers and place the first half of the order in between classes at 10:30 a.m.

"It takes a long time to make that many sandwiches. I was up to 40 sandwiches a day," he said. The Gobblers and Cubans were most popular, and Mr. Welch would mark up the price about 50 cents an item. The other payback for the middleman was a free sandwich.

But school officials put an end to the business when they learned Mr. Welch was bootlegging sandwiches instead of going to his work-study job in Aquinnah. High school principal Peg Regan also said that the contract with Chartwells prohibits any competition within the school.

So far, Mrs. Regan isn't taking any potshots at the cafeteria service in her building. "I have nothing but good things to say about the food service as it stands now. Our students wish there was a KFC across the street and a couple pizza places across the campus," she said. "They like a lot of variety but it's hard to do. Offering cafeteria lunches is always a thankless job."