The number of students getting free and reduced-price meals nationwide is on the rise, presenting a dilemma for state and local school officials struggling to plug budget shortfalls. In California, for example, the state superintendent of public instruction recently warned that the state will run out of lunch money a month before the school year ends. If that happens, local school districts will have to absorb the extra costs of feeding students even if it means cutting academic programs and jobs, the San Diego Union-Tribunte reports.
The School Nutrition Association reports that 425,000 more students are receiving free or discounted meals this academic year. The increase reflects a possible shift in family incomes. Free and reduced-price lunch is a main indicator of poverty among families. "High unemployment rates and families' proactive efforts to save money have resulted in significantly more students eating lunch at school," says the School Nutrition Association. These findings are included in a report issued by the nonprofit group this month titled Saved by the Lunch Bell: As Economy Sinks, School Nutrition Program Participation Rises.
The group recently surveyed 137 school nutrition directors from 38 states whose districts participate in the federal lunch program. Eighty percent of those districts reported serving more free lunches to students while 65 percent said they served more reduced-price meals. Nearly half of the districts surveyed saw a drop in students paying the full price for a school meal. Last year, the federal government spent nearly $9 billion to subsidize the cost of school meals. Children from families of four that earn $27,560 or less are eligible for free meals.