Rising Number of Children Said To Be Eligible for Free, Reduced-Priced Lunch
By Ellen Flax
The percentage of students who participate in the federal school lunch program who have become eligible for free or reduced- priced meals has steadily increased over the past two years, data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveal.
Currently, more than half of all children who participate in the school-lunch program come from families with incomes so low that they qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, according to figures from the u.s.D.A., which administers the program.
Of the 24.5 million children who were participating in the federally funded entitlement program this September, 12.4 million, or 50.6 percent, were eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, an increase of 1.3 million from last September.
This September, 41.2 percent of the students were eligible for a free hot lunch because their families earned less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $17,420 for a family of four. Last September, in contrast, 40.7 percent of the children were eligible for free meals. Children who come from families that earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $24,790 for a family of four, are eligible for reduced-priced meals, which by law cannot exceed 40 cents.
From 1987 through 1989, the U.S.D.A. data indicate, the percentage of full-priced meals sold increased from 51.7 percent to 53.1 percent.
During the past two years, however, that trend has reversed, the figures show, to 51.7 percent in 1990 and less than 50 percent in 1991. These decreases have occurred in every region of the country, the U.S.D.A. data show.
Officials at the U.S.D.A. said they could not say with any certainty what had caused the upsurge in requests for free and reduced-priced meals.
Richard Thaxton, a spokesman for the U.S.D.A.'S Food and Nutrition Service, said the nation's poor economy, especially in the Northeast, "is a contributing cause" to the increasing percentage of children receiving free and reduced-priced meals.
But, he added, "there is no single cause" for the increase.
He said department officials, who have not studied why more families are applying for the benefit, believe that efforts by some states to make students from families that are already eligible for other forms of federal aid automatically eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches, may be responsible for some of the increase.
'Things Have Gotten Worse'
To others, however, the recession is clearly the main reason why more families are seeking free and reduced-priced meals.
They note, for example, that an increasing number of families are receiving food stamps. In September, about 23.7 million Americans were on food stamps, compared with 20.5 million in September last year.
"The only thing that has changed from a year ago is that the recession has gotten significantly worse," said Rod Leonard, the executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute, a Washington-based group.
"There always are other contributing factors," he noted, "but the fact that fewer students are paying full price is also an indication that things have gotten worse."
In Boston, said Helen Mont-Ferguson, the director of that district's food-services program, increases in the number of children seeking free and reduced-priced meals is "strictly because of the economy."
As of September, 34,/60 applications for free and reduced-priced lunches had been approved, she said, compared with 29,938 in June.
"A lot of households here are out of work," she said. "We have had a lot of people come in during certification [of their application] who say they have never had to do this before."
Kevin Dando, a lobbyist with the American School Food Service Association, said an increase in the number of students seeking free and reduced-priced meals should not necessarily have a financial effect on most districts' food programs.
Schools are guaranteed a 16-cent reimbursement from the government for every meal served, and higher rates for free and reduced-priced meals. In districts with a small number of participants, an upsurge in the number of poor children who eat lunch "would improve the economic situation," Mx. Dando said.