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Up To 15% of Students Drop Out of Lunch Program

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Participation in the National School Lunch Program has dropped between 5 percent and 15 percent in many cities across the country, a recent informal survey by food-service administrators suggests.

As a result of the $1-billion budget cut in the program that took effect last October, many districts were forced to raise prices, and many parents decided that they could no longer afford to pay for school lunches, the officials say.

Participation Decrease

According to current estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others, about 1,500 schools and three million students have dropped out of the program this year. As of May 1981, 26 million students were participating; of this group, 12.4 million received either free or reduced-price meals.

"There's a decided drop in participation," said Louise Froelich, the director of legislative activity for the Denver-based American School Food Service Association, which this month convened a meeting of state food-service administrators in Brownsville, Tex. That meeting yielded no definitive, state-by-state figures, Ms. Froelich said.

However, the informal survey of major urban areas showed significant declines in some districts, she said.

Survey Results

In areas where participation has dropped off, Ms. Froelich said, the decline generally followed a substantial rise in prices, which many districts enacted in anticipation of the October cut's impact. But in districts "where they have not raised the prices, they're doing okay," she said. According to the survey:

In Birmingham, Ala., participation dropped from 71 percent last year to 60 percent this year.

In Vero Beach, Fla., participation dropped from 69 percent last year to 50 percent this year.

In Des Moines, participation dropped from 67 percent last year to 53 percent this year.

In Baton Rouge, participation dropped from 80 percent to 70 percent.

In Omaha, participation dropped from 79 percent to 62 percent.

Las Vegas, participation dropped from 50 percent to 36 percent.

Buffalo, participation dropped from 70 percent to 58 percent.

In Memphis, participation dropped from 72 percent to 62 percent.

In Fairfax County, Va., participation dropped from 61 percent to 45 percent.

A reporter's spot check of several states and districts found Montana with the highest rate of decline in participation. In September, participation dropped 22 percent among students who pay the full price for their meals. But by November, this figure improved slightly, to 18 percent, said H. Brisbin Skiles, the director of the division of school food services for the state education department."There's been a slow return of the paying child."

Large numbers of low-income students have also dropped out, Mr. Skiles said. "I would have to say that changes in eligibility criteria have very adversely affected that segment," he said.

November figures showed that the number of free lunches provided for Montana students had dropped 11 percent from the previous November, and reduced-price lunches were down by 15 percent, suggesting that many students who no longer qualify for free or reduced-price lunches cannot afford to pay more for them.

"Those are the ones who are really hurting here," Mr. Skiles said, adding that Montana has a very high unemployment rate.

In North Dakota, participation dropped by an average of 8.2 percent in September 1981 compared with September 1980, according to Al Hohenstein, director of school food programs for the state education department. The decline in participation was greater among students who received either free or reduced-price lunches--14.7 percent and 13.8 percent, respectively--Mr. Hohenstein said.

The more stringent application process for these programs may account for the disproportionately high dropout rate among these students, Mr. Hohenstein said, adding that officials have not yet analyzed the reasons for the decline among various groups.

Detailed Forms

In Montana, Mr. Skiles said, the more detailed application form did not appear to be a factor in the decline. The form now requires that parents report household income and their social security numbers. Incomplete or incorrect forms may prevent students from the participating in the program, according to the new regulations.

Lunch prices in North Dakota have increased an average of about 25 percent, Mr. Hohenstein said.

In Illinois, state officials report a 15.5 percent overall drop in participation, 95 percent of which was among students who paid the full price for lunch. "The increased cost of school lunches has been more than many of the working poor families can afford," Robert E. Ohlzen, the manager of the food and nutrition programs for the state board of education, told a Congressional sub-committee at a field hearing held in Illinois last month.

Prices have gone up an average of 28 cents in the public schools, Mr. Ohlzen said.

Weather a Factor

In Missouri, participation has dropped about 15.7 percent, according to state officials. In states where the declines were reported early in the school year, officials believe the cold weather brought some students back to the program. When the wind chill sends the temperature plummeting to -100 degrees, many students are less inclined to go home for lunch, noted Mr. Hohenstein in a telephone interview from his office in Bismarck, N.D.

In New York City, through what one official called "superhuman efforts," administrators avoided having to raise prices for school lunches last fall. And although participation has shifted--students who received free lunches are now eligible only for reduced-price lunches, and some of those who received reduced-price meals last year must pay the full price this year--the overall participation level has remained stable, according to Elizabeth Cagan, the chief administrator for the district's office of school food services.

"This was an all-out, concerted effort by everyone, and it was unbelievable what happened," Ms. Cagan said. Other districts have also managed to stave off what many regarded as inevitable declines in participation. In Milwaukee, participation has dropped only two percent from last year. Austin, Tex., Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis have also experienced little change from last year, according to the survey.

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