Economic Crisis Affects Lunch Affordability

34: the percentage of students at West who are currently getting school lunches for $0.40 or cheaper – students that are on free and reduced lunch. Over the past three years, the percentage has risen nearly 7 percent. Many people are putting the economy at fault.

“Prices are going up while many are struggling to maintain the same level of income,” Tim Rooney, Manager of Budget and Finance for SMSD, said.

Free and reduced lunch, which is totally based on household size and income, assures that students are able to eat a full lunch every day. Since 2008, the number of students on this program district-wide has grown from 27 percent to 35 percent.

“[The program] is designed as a safety net for kids if they can’t afford lunch,” Nancy Coughenour, Manager of Food Services for SMSD, said.

She receives applications for the program, reviews them, and sends them off to each school.

According to Rooney, unemployment and underemployment have been factors in the influx of students on free and reduced lunch. Some families that always had the money became laid off due to the economic recession, and they need some way to help their families.

“Having a child or children approved for free and reduced meals is a help for the family. This allows the family to utilize their money on other things such as rent, instead of purchasing breakfast or lunch at school,” Coughenour said.

That 34 percent statistic could be higher. Coughenour said many students either don’t realize that the program is available or would be too embarrassed to admit that they are signed up for it. She assures that it is confidential, as there are no special cards or anything; it’s all private.

“Many people don’t realize that a program like this is available. It’s meant to be caring and confidential at the same time,” Coughenour said.

The only way that the district has been able to support free and reduced lunch is through government funding for the program.

“The school finance formula allows the district to receive additional funding for at-risk children that is based on the number of students eligible for free lunches each year,” Rooney said.

Lately, overall funding to the district has decreased, while they’ve still been able to get appropriate funding to provide for free and reduced lunch, and over the next few years, the percentage of students may keep rising until the economy digs out from the recession.

“We’re not like the federal government. When revenue goes down, we have to cut expenditures,” Rooney said.

With the economy struggling and families making less annual income per year, it’s programs like free and reduced lunch that are allowing students the option of getting a full meal. This summer, the district also has a plan to offer free lunches to anyone between the ages of four and 18. The program will last from June 4 to July 27 at Comanche, Rosehill, Nieman, and Shawanoe Elementary Schools.

“We found federal monies so that food service will be able to offer lunches during the summer,” Coughenour said. “We really feel strongly that kids should get helped all year round.”

Budget cuts are increasing along with student fees, and according to Rooney, the cuts were pretty painful. But in the end, it’s what make programs like free and reduced lunch an option for those who are currently in need, which, in the present time is over 34 percent.

“You may walk through the cafeteria and try to pick out all of the students that are getting help, but you’d be surprised at how many people truly are on free and reduced lunch,” Erica Warren, associate principal, said.