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The economic downturn is also having an effect on school cafeterias around the country. More students are qualifying for subsidized lunch programs, and that's hard on some school districts. From WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut, Anna Sale reports.

ANNA SALE: Wendy LeDuc has been the lead cook at Chippens Hill Middle School in Bristol, Connecticut for 15 years. She watches the students snake through the cafeteria's double lines, filling up their trays with today's choice, a rib-a-que sandwich or a calzone with pizza sauce. This school year, she says, the cafeteria has been particularly busy.

Ms. WENDY LEDUC: (Lead Cook, Chippens Hill Middle School, Bristol, Connecticut): A lot more children seem to be taking advantage of the free and reduced program.

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

Mr. GREG BOULANGER (Director, Food Service, Bristol Public School District, Bristol, Connecticut): Everybody is just a little off in what their business is. You know, I talk to the families and the kids, and you know, they're down.

SALE: The hard times are also hitting the school lunch budget. Steven DeVaux runs Bristol's business office.

Mr. STEVEN DEVAUX (Assistant to the Superintendent, Bristol Public School District, Bristol, Connecticut): The more students that we qualify for free and reduced, which is rising dramatically, the more we're going to sustain a deficit.

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

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

SALE: To qualify for a reduced price lunch in most states, the federal income limit is about $39,000 a year for a family of four. If they make $12,000 less than that, it's free. The federal assistance program has steadily grown, and it now pitches in on 60 percent of school meals served nationally. In Bristol, the poverty rate has been creeping up over the last several years. More students qualified for lunch subsidies last year than the year before. It's already up two and a half percent this fall. And Boulanger is bracing for more applications come winter.

Mr. BOULANGER: What do you think is 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 another push.

SALE: 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. It's paying ten cents more per meal this school year. But Connecticut is not the only place where that's not covering cost. The School Nutrition Association is a trade group for food service directors. It says cafeteria costs are outpacing reimbursements across the country. Mary Ann Lopez is the president of the group's Connecticut chapter.

Ms. MARY ANN LOPEZ (President, School Nutrition Association of Connecticut): It's harder than it's ever been. Between the regulations and the expectations and the costs, balancing your budget today is a miracle. And we just keep our fingers crossed as we go along.

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

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

SALE: At those current limits, the Bush administration's budget projects more than a quarter-million more students will qualify for help this school year. How to keep paying for that is something Congress will have to weigh in on next year, when the federal school lunch program is up for renewal. For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in Hartford, Connecticut.

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