Free School Lunches

POSTED: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 - 6:56pm

UPDATED: Thursday, June 3, 2010 - 11:57pm

It’s National School Breakfast Week, but as the recession worsens, millions of parents have lost jobs and can’t afford to give their kids lunch money. Tracie Potts reports from Washington, where school districts across the nation are swamped with requests for free and reduced lunches.

Tu Mookkunt is a parent that volunteers in the cafeteria, but can’t afford $2.40 a day for her own child. She’s in Montgomery County, Maryland, where incomes rank in the nation’s top 10. But even there, they’re seeing 400 new applications for free and reduced lunch every month. Marla Kaplon says, “That’s unheard of. It’s the highest percentage we’ve ever had here in Montgomery County.” Why? Because parents are losing jobs and those few dollars a day for lunch add up.

The School Nutrition Association found almost 8 in 10 school districts got more applications for free lunch this year. The federal government reimburses them, but doesn’t fully cover the cost. Katie Wilson with School Nutrition Association says, “It’s very, very difficult to make ends meet with that reimbursement rate, but you still want to serve a child a hot, nutritious meal.”

With so many parents out of work, some groups suggest free lunch for all students. Washington can’t afford it. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says, “In times when we’re dealing with deficits, trillion dollar deficits, I think we have to be very cautious about how expansive these programs can be.” Congress must reauthorize summer and other school food programs by the end of September. For now, the stimulus package includes $100 million for new cafeteria equipment. Preference goes to schools with half or more of their students eligible for free or reduced meals.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School System says they’ve seen very little change in enrollment for their free and reduced lunch program. Recent enrollment has had a minor increase of about 1%.