WASHINGTON — The number of U.S. students who receive free and reduced-cost meals at school could soar to a 41-year high this school year, as record job losses and high unemployment push thousands more children into poverty, many for the first time.
According to projections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at least 18.5 million low-income students are expected to participate in the National School Lunch Program each day during the 2009-10 school year. More than 8.5 million are expected to take advantage of the federal School Breakfast Program.
Both projections are about the same as the record participation levels that each program set last year. If rising family homelessness and steady growth in the food stamp program are any indication, however, enrollment in both student-meal programs could swell well beyond expectations this fall.
"I think it's certainly possible and I hope it's true," said Jim Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger nonprofit group. "I hope students are going to be making it into the program in much larger numbers, because we already know there are more families struggling, and the school meals program is a great way for them to get support."
Students from families that receive food stamps are automatically eligible for both meal programs. Enrollment in the food stamp program, which was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program last year, has set a record each of the last six months.
In May, 34.4 million people used food stamps to buy groceries, up 2 percent from April.
Children in homeless families, which include those that are sharing housing with other families, are also eligible for free school meals.
While the total number of homeless Americans held steady last year at about 675,000 on any given night, the number of homeless families increased by about 9 percent, said Nan Roman, the president of the nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness.
"We expect it will continue to go up this year, and there are indications that that's already happening," Roman said.
Combining such dire circumstances with a hard-hit local economy fueled nearly a 50 percent jump in the number of students who pre-qualified for free lunches in central Florida's Polk County public schools.
Before school began last year, 13,179 Polk County students were eligible for free lunches because their families received food stamps or welfare. This year it's 19,559 students, said Marcia Smith, the district's food service director.
In the midlands of South Carolina, Sumter County's preliminary figures from School District 17 suggest an increase of more than 50 percent, from 2,050 children last year to 3,214 this year.
In Illinois, Chicago public schools have seen a 30 percent increase, going from 107,144 children eligible for free and reduced-cost meals at the start of the last school year to 139,417 this year.
It's a similar story in Dayton, Ohio, where the closure of several General Motors plants and the relocation of National Cash Register to an Atlanta suburb have helped push unemployment to 12 percent.
Dayton public schools report a 20 to 25 percent increase, with about 6,000 students pre-qualified, compared with 4,800 to 5,000 in most years, said Stephen Grundy, the director of nutrition services at Dayton schools.
He expects about 80 percent of the district's 15,000 students to get free or reduced meals this year, up from about 72 percent last year.
Even in the Spring Independent School District, about 20 miles north of downtown Houston, the region's resilient economy probably won't stop the steady rise in low-income children in this fast-growing metropolitan area.
Student numbers aren't yet available, but district nutrition director Melanie Konarik is expecting an increase as well. Many of the new students in the meal programs will be newcomers to poverty, the sons and daughters of laid-off energy and service sector employees or of relocated job seekers who've found it tougher than they expected to find work.
"These are probably families that never considered they would need assistance like that," Konarik said. "So for many of them, it's like a sudden impact. They truly don't want to be on (the free meal program). They're very independent people."
Polk County, Fla., which encompasses Lakeland and Winter Haven, is home to many families who work in the hospitality industry, including the nearby Disney World resort in Orlando.
The recession has forced thousands of layoffs in the hospitality sector, and many other employees have seen their working hours cut as families curtailed vacation plans. Smith, the school district's food service director, said that the fallout had hit her department's 900 employees hard. Many of the new students getting free lunches will be the children of her staff.
"I'm just absolutely amazed at how many of them are telling me their spouses have been laid off or their hours have been cut so drastically," Smith said
To make matters worse, this will be the third straight year that Smith's employees have gone without raises. Part of the problem is it costs more to provide school lunches than the district recovers in reimbursements from the federal government.
A report last year by the School Nutrition Association, a professional organization that advocates for children's nutrition found that the average cost to prepare a school meal was $2.90 in the last school year. However, the USDA's reimbursement rate was only $2.57. This school year, it jumps 4.2 percent to $2.68, but the association says it's still not enough.
President Barack Obama's 2010 budget request calls for a $1 billion increase to federal child nutrition programs. The School Nutrition Association wants Congress to increase school meal reimbursements by 35 cents per meal.
Last year, Smith said, her department broke even on its $40 million annual budget. "But if there had been any raises, we would have lost $500,000, easily."
The constant budget juggling has taken a toll, she said.
"It's just not fun anymore," said Smith, a 35-year school district employee and former president of the Florida School Food Service Association.
"Every day, you have to constantly think about having to tell the food service managers, 'No, you can't do this.' 'No, you can't do that.' 'No, you can't decorate the bulletin boards.' All the extra things that could make a difference as far as participation — because things like that bring the kids in — it's 'No, no, no.' I get tired of saying 'no.' But I've got a financial obligation to keep the program in the black."
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