Bradenton Herald (Florida), April 28, 2008: Economic crunch seen in school lunch rooms

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About 46 percent of students in Manatee County are taking advantage of the school district’s free or reduced lunch programs this school year.

That’s 2.7 percent more than the number of students who participated in the program last year, and an indicator of the economic challenge facing the community.

That’s the biggest jump the number has made in five years. It went up 1.8 percentage points between the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years. And that doesn’t include those students enrolled in private schools in Manatee County.

“We’re processing more applications. I think parents who before were on the edge of qualifying maybe didn’t apply. Now what we’re seeing is more parents apply as finances get tight,” said Sandra Ford, the school district’s director of food and nutrition.

There’s no way to tell whether everyone who qualifies for the programs is taking advantage of them, schools officials say. But, says Project Heart program manager Deb Bailey, parents are happy to get assistance of any kind.

All students who are part of Project Heart, which assists students and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, qualify for free meals in schools, and Bailey imagines most of them take advantage of it.

Project Heart’s numbers haven’t changed drastically this year over previous years, she says, but final numbers aren’t in yet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets the program’s eligibility requirements, which are based on the poverty level set by the U.S. government.

If a family has an income at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, the children from that family can receive free meals. If a family has an income between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level, its children are eligible for meals at reduced prices.

This school year, 130 percent of the poverty level is $26,845 for a family of four, while 185 percent is $38,203.

It’s amazing how many Manatee families are living within those means, said Diana Dill, program administrator of Take Stock in Children.

“To me, learning that a family of four with a household income of $38,000 is the cap really makes you realize what these families are struggling to survive on,” Dill said.

Take Stock in Children is a state program that helps students stay in school. Each program participant receives a college tuition scholarship, a volunteer mentor and other support. All of the more than 5,200 students throughout the county who qualify for the program participate in the free and reduced lunch program, Dill said.

Similarly, the 1,100 Project Heart students in schools automatically qualify for the district’s free lunch program, Bailey said.

“It’s sort of a de facto eligibility,” she said.

Federal legislation has the maximum price students can pay for lower-cost meals set at 40 cents, which is what Manatee schools charge. Ford said the district could charge 30 cents for each reduced-price breakfast but charges only 20 cents.

Even when meal prices in the school system increase as they did this school year, the reduced price stays the same, Ford said.

District elementary school students not on either program pay 90 cents for breakfast and $1.70 for lunch, while middle- and high-schoolers pay $1 for breakfast and $1.95 for lunch.

By comparison, students in Sarasota County middle and high schools pay $2.25 for lunch, while elementary students pay $2. Breakfast is $1 at middle and high schools and 75 cents at elementary schools. Sarasota charges 30 cents for reduced-price breakfasts and 40 cents for lunch.

Regardless of what they pay for their meals, all Manatee schools students use a debit card-like system that keeps their status confidential from their peers, Ford said.

“Students use their student IDs, and when they come through we ring it up as a lunch,” she said. “If they’re eligible for the program, they’re charged accordingly.”

And even though food prices across the board are seeing increases, Manatee schools still are meeting their nutritional goals, Ford says.

The district continues to monitor closely the price of fruits and vegetables. It sometimes has to make changes to school menus, serving the cheaper choice, but still tries to offer fresh produce every day, she says.

“We haven’t noticed a huge difference. It’s been very gradual in terms of pricing.”

Tiffany St. Martin, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7918. Economic crunch seen in school lunch rooms

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