The sinking economy has shrunk families' income, causing more people to seek assistance from free and reduced-price school lunch programs. The trend has also yielded a benefit: improved nutrition. A recent national study, "Saved by the Lunch Bell: As Economy Sinks, School Nutrition Program Participation Rises," found large increases in student participation in school lunch programs.
The sinking economy has shrunk families' income, causing more people to seek assistance from free and reduced-price school lunch programs. The trend has also yielded a benefit: improved nutrition.
According to the Associated Press, a recent national study, "Saved by the Lunch Bell: As Economy Sinks, School Nutrition Program Participation Rises," found large increases in student participation in school lunch programs.
The School Nutrition Association, the nonprofit that conducted the study, said about 425,000 more students are participating in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program in 2008-'09 than in the previous school year.
Area food service directors say they have also noticed the increase. In Bellingham, Food Services Director Kyle Parson said the number of students applying for free and reduced lunch has increased since September. Last month, 380 students participated in the program, up from 361 in the beginning of the school year.
"It's a pretty good jump for us," Parson said. "I think it's a trend, as times get tough and people can't pay bills and get laid off."
In Framingham, where 33 percent of students are on free and reduced-price lunch, Director of Food Services Brendan Ryan said he has noticed sizable increases.
"Five years ago, parents wouldn't do it, but now they want to pull an application," he said. "Especially here in Framingham where they now have to pay for busing and after-school programs."
Clair Doyle, Franklin's food service director, said enrollment has increased about 2 percent this year.
"I'm expecting more, they're coming in every day," Doyle said. "Let's face it, the economy is terrible and people need it. Thank God it's available for them."
According to the School Nutrition Association, which represents workers who provide the meals, almost 80 percent of schools surveyed by the organization are reporting an increase in the number of free lunches served this year.
In the "Saved by the Lunch Bell" study, researchers found an average increase of 2.5 percent in the number of students who purchased lunch at school from 2007-'08.
Lisa Beaudin, Ashland's director of food and nutrition service, said applications have increased but that doesn't equate to rising enrollment.
"We noticed more (applications) are coming in, but they are not all approved which to me says people are hurting," Beaudin said.
Reduced-price lunch in most districts is 40 cents. Regular priced lunch is typically $2 at elementary schools and $2.50 at middle and high schools, area food service directors said.
"It's the best deal in town," Ryan said.
The nutritional value for children to eat at school is another benefit, researchers found.
"It's the exception - not the norm - for kids to get a full breakfast," Ryan said. "Here, we serve a complete breakfast."
The breakfast program in Framingham is the only one in the state to be certified by the Department of Education and Project Bread, Ryan said. Framingham schools typically serve whole grain bagels, yogurt, 1 percent milk and hot egg wraps for breakfast.
In Franklin, a new wellness program eliminated sugar and fatty foods on lunch menus and replaced them with salads and fruits.
"It's absolutely more nutritious, everything is balanced," Doyle said.
Beaudin said some students resisted the more nutritious options but slowly adjusted.
"We have to keep our participation rates up," she said. "It's balancing nutrition integrity with student preference."
Students are encouraged to participate in the discounted lunch program.
"It's valuable for the students and for us," Parson said.
Most schools nationwide receive free fruit and vegetables from the Agriculture Department and $2.57 per free lunch served.
Ryan said the state absorbs the cost of free and reduced-price lunch and allocates more money where the percentage of students on discount lunch programs is high.
"I derive more income from it, and this way I can keep the prices down," he said.
Michelle Laczkoski can be reached at email@example.com or 508-634-7556.
The Milford Daily News