As families continue to struggle during the economic crisis, record numbers of students are receiving free or low-cost school lunches. Department of Education officials reported that 52 percent of fourth graders are now enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, up from 49 percent in 2009.
Last school year, 21 million students received subsidized school lunches, up 17 percent from 18 million in 2006-2007, The New York Times reports. In that same period 11 states saw increases of 25 percent or more as layoffs severely cut into family incomes. The Agricultural Department reports that all 50 states have seen increases in enrollment.
Students qualify for free lunches if their families have incomes up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $29,055 for a family of four. In a four-member household with income up to $41,348, children qualify for a subsidized lunch priced at 40 cents.
In Rockdale County, Georgia, east of Atlanta, 63 percent of students receive subsidized lunches up from 46 percent in 2006. Officials there blame the economy for the increase.
“We’re seeing people who were never eligible before, never had a need,” Peggy Lawrence, director of school nutrition for Rockdale County Schools, told The Times.
Benjamin Senauer, a University of Minnesota economist who studies the meals program, told The Times, “These are very large increases and a direct reflection of the hardships American families are facing.”
Not all growth in enrollment in the lunch program can be attributed to the economy, however. According to The Times, a new way of qualifying students for the subsidized lunch program, known as direct certification, has also increased enrollment. In 2004, Congress required that all U.S. school districts automatically enroll any child whose family also receives food stamps. In the 2010-2011 school year, 14 million school-age children were in families eligible for food stamps, 2 million more than the 2009-2010 school year.
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