Published Online: June 22, 2009

Amid Recession, Demand Rises for School Lunches

Amid Ohio's struggling economy, school officials are expecting an increased demand for a summer program that offers discount lunches to students.

The federal program, which began in 1968, served more than 2 million children in the U.S. last year, and this summer promises to be even busier.

Fairborn City Schools has seen at least a 20 percent increase since last year, said Paula Montgomery, the district's nutrition director.

Kettering is also feeling the demand, seeing a 4 percent jump in applications since last year, more than double the usual rate for the 7,000-pupil district in suburban Dayton.

"We are seeing more families applying for the first time," said Louise Easterly, the school district's food and nutrition supervisor.

To qualify for a free lunch, a family of four can have an income of no more than $27,560 per year under the 2008-09 federal guidelines. For a reduced-price lunch, the limit is $39,220.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $312 million on the program last summer, including $8.4 million in Ohio.

Statewide, 516,355 applications for free lunches were filed in February 2009, a 7.93 percent jump from the previous year. Another 98,000 applied for discounted lunches, a near 4 percent hike from February 2008.

But the increased demand is putting additional pressures on school budgets. Districts get a federal reimbursement for each free lunch served, but it typically comes up short.

Dayton, for example, gets $2.59 for each free lunch served, but it costs the district $2.89 in food and labor to produce a meal, said Stephen Grundy, the school district's nutrition services director.

Rising food costs have forced some tough decisions in Kettering, Easterly said. The district has had to choose products cheaper and less nutritious for children — going with canned fruit and vegetables over fresh, for example, and passing on whole grain products for white bread.

"We were caught just like everyone else," she said. "Going to the grocery store, you have to make some adjustments and live within your means."

Easterly successfully appealed to the district for a bump in resources this fall, which will allow her to again go with fresh and whole grain products.

President Barack Obama's budget request includes an additional $1 billion per year to expand program access, promote the diets of school children and improve program performance and integrity.

"This is the best deal a family could ever come across," said Cecelia Torok, associate director at the Ohio Department of Education. "There's families who end up on food stamps or having to visit food banks to help supplement their income. This is a way for those families to make it through those tight times."

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