More Families Seek Reduced-Cost School Lunches

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The Chippens Hill Middle School cafeteria in Bristol, Conn. i

Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Chippens Hill Middle School in Bristol, Conn. Anna Sale for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Anna Sale for NPR
The Chippens Hill Middle School cafeteria in Bristol, Conn.

Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Chippens Hill Middle School in Bristol, Conn.

Anna Sale for NPR

After the price of food shot up last spring, the impact was felt in school cafeterias across the country. Now another economic trend is showing up in the lunch line: stretched family finances. For some school districts, it's making a difficult budget situation worse.

At Chippens Hill Middle School in Bristol, Conn., students snake through the cafeteria's double lines, filling up their trays with the day's culinary offerings: a rib-e-cue sandwich or a calzone with pizza sauce.

Wendy LeDuc has been the lead cook at the school for 15 years, and she says the cafeteria has been particularly busy this school year.

"Kids are taking advantage of the breakfast plan, and they seem to be eating their lunch," she says.

But it's at the end of the line, when students get to the cashier, where LeDuc sees what might be behind the new demand.

"A lot more children seem to be taking advantage of the free and reduced program," she says.

The school district's numbers confirm her hunch. More families are requesting and qualifying for help, and lunch director Greg Boulanger says it's a direct result of the local economy.

"Everybody is just a little off in what their business is," Boulanger says. "You know, I talk to the families and the kids, and they're down."

But Steven DeVaux, who runs the Bristol school district's business office, says the hard times are also hitting the school lunch budget.

"The more students that we qualify for free and reduced, which is rising dramatically, the more we're going to sustain a deficit," he says.

A third of all lunches served in Bristol are free, and the school district loses 21 cents on each one. With high food costs and rigorous nutrition standards, Boulanger says, it's not easy to find ways to save money.

"We're feeding kids," he says. "This is not a situation where it's a destination restaurant maybe on a Saturday night. It's your children's breakfast and lunch."

To qualify for a reduced price lunch in most states, the federal income limit is $39,220 a year for a family of four. If a family of the same size makes $27,560 or less, it's free.

The federal assistance program has grown steadily, and now it helps pay for three out of five school meals served nationally.

In Bristol, the poverty rate has been creeping up over the past several years. More students qualified for lunch subsidies last year than the year before, and this fall that number has already risen 2.5 percent. Boulanger is bracing for even more applications to come during the winter.

"What do you think's going to happen when those families start to pay that first oil bill when they've got the furnace turned on? Then we're really going to see a push," he says.

To help close the gap, Bristol wants more government help. The federal government increases its reimbursement to districts once a year based on food prices, and as a result, it's paying 10 cents more per meal this school year.

But Connecticut is not the only place where the federal funding is falling short.

Representatives from the School Nutrition Association, a trade group for food service directors, say cafeteria costs are outpacing reimbursements across the country.

"It's harder than it's ever been," says Mary Ann Lopez, president of the group's Connecticut chapter. "Between the regulations and the expectations and the costs, balancing your budget today is a miracle. We just keep our fingers crossed as we go along."

In suburban districts like hers, Lopez says, she hasn't seen the same jump in students qualifying for assistance, but she has noticed another phenomenon.

"What we are seeing is an increase in denials, which comes from parents who have had substantial incomes who have lost the income of one of the two," Lopez says. "So they're struggling because they've never lived with so little money, but they're not anywhere near the levels the national government sets as guidelines."

At the current limits, the Bush administration's budget projects that more than a quarter-million additional students will qualify for help this school year. How to keep paying for that assistance is something Congress will have to weigh in on next year, when the federal school lunch program is up for renewal.

Anna Sale reports for member station WNPR in Hartford, Conn.



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