School District preps for surge in lunch-program takers

School District 51 Nutrition Services is bracing for an increase in the number of families in the free and reduced lunch program as the economy worsens.

The official fall count of students in the program for the 2008-09 school year was 38.8 percent of students, said Dan Sharp, director of Nutrition Services. It was a slight decrease from the year before and reflected when the area was still enjoying a bit of an economic boom. The latest February count shows 36.9 percent of students are in the program, an increase of less than 0.1 percent over the same time last year, Sharp said.

But the percentage of students in the program lags behind economic conditions, Sharp said, and he predicts next fall that percentage will jump into the low 40s.

Sharp said he worries the February number may also be low because struggling families are unaware they can apply for the free and reduced lunch program at any time. Forms for the program are sent out every year in the fall, Sharp said, and within 48 hours of receiving an application, an eligible student could be receiving benefits at any point in the year.

“We need to do a much better job educating people about this,” he said.
Sharp said the form to apply for the program is available on the district Web site and at any school cafeteria.

The free and reduced lunch program is federally mandated, and families that are eligible cannot be making more than double the poverty income level. Household size also influences eligibility.

Sharp said there is sometimes a stigma surrounding free and reduced lunch and that some people may feel embarrassed to be in the program.

“No kid is identified,” Sharp said. “There are actually federal requirements that no kid be identified as being in the program, so people need to know that.”

Student information is kept confidential, Sharp said. He has heard occasionally that some families who may be in the country illegally aren’t applying for the program out of fear that doing so will identify them as targets for deportation.

“That’s simply not true,” Sharp said.


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