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More students get free, discount lunches

March 21, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- Belt-tightening by families across the nation has contributed to a midyear increase in the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches in Franklin County, Pa., schools.

The Chambersburg Area School District had 2,959 students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches in the fall, but that number had climbed to 3,092 students by last week. District officials say the program enrollment typically would have stayed the same or decreased as the school year progressed.

"This year has shown the largest single-year increase that I can recall seeing," said Ann Ziobrowski, Chambersburg's food services director.

Pennsylvania school districts received, for the first time, a second semester notice from the state to show how many families automatically qualify for free and reduced-price lunches because of their involvement in state assistance programs. The Greencastle-Antrim School District's notice added 14 more students to the free and reduced-cost lunches program, said Christina Mowen, Greencastle's interim food services director.

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Still, Mowen was surprised the number didn't increase by more than 14.

"I thought it'd be much higher," Mowen said.

The National School Lunch Program provides low-cost or free lunches to more than 30 million children each school day. A family of four with an income of less than $39,220 qualifies for reduced-price student meals costing no more than 40 cents, while the same family making less than $27,560 qualifies for free meals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program nationally.

School districts benefit by having every family eligible for free and reduced-price lunches enrolled in the program. They receive Title 1 education subsidies based on the number of children receiving free and reduced-cost lunches.

District officials say the old days of giving students specially colored tickets for free and reduced-price lunches are gone. Instead, computerized point-of-sale systems used in cafeterias mean classmates have no idea who receives discounted meals.

"Everybody is treated the same," said Mike Embly, food services director for Waynesboro Area School District.

Waynesboro saw a spike in the number of free and reduced-price lunch participants when it started using the computerized systems several years ago, Embly said. Now, parents are talking about economic woes when they fill out applications, he said.

Slightly less than 27 percent of the Waynesboro student population received free or reduced-cost lunches in the 2004-05 school year. That percentage now stands at 36 percent, Embly said.

School officials grapple with what to feed students who don't have lunch money and don't enroll in the free and reduced-cost lunch program.

Waynesboro has a policy that students who are past due $15 or more on their accounts are to be fed an alternate meal, but Embly said that policy rarely is enforced. He fears the children would view a different meal as punishment, and workers cannot legally re-serve a meal if a student selects one and discovers at the register that he's past due on his account.

"We've been very, very lenient," Embly said.

Mowen said younger Greencastle students continue to receive the regular meal if they don't have money. After two days without money at the secondary level, students are given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit and milk.

Chambersburg's elementary students also receive the regular meal, while the secondary students without payment receive a cheese sandwich and milk.

In Tuscarora's middle and high schools, students can "charge" up to $10 if they don't have payment, food service director Nancy Foust said.

"After this, an alternative meal will be provided until the charges reach $15," she said. "At that time, their parent/guardian is sent a certified letter asking that they provide a packed lunch for the student until the charges are paid in full."

Embly said Waynesboro has the power to submit past-due accounts to the magisterial district judge's office, but that brings additional fees and is considered a last resort. Instead, he would prefer families join the free and reduced-price lunch program or set up a series of payments they can afford.

"There's a lot of folks going through tough economic times," Embly said. "Just communicate with us."




The following are resources for those who believe they might be eligible for free or reduced-cost student lunches.

o Your school district's administrative offices

o Your school district's Web site, which often has the forms posted

o Pennsylvania's COMPASS Web site at www.compass.state.pa.us

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