School lunch program numbers increase

One-third of school district students receiving free or reduced-price lunch

By the numbers

Lunch Program 2009 2008

Students receiving free lunch 653 595

Students receiving reduced-price lunch 192 176

Total 845 771

Total district headcount 2,558 2,407

Percentage 33 32

If Karma Willbanks had her way, all students in the Moffat County School District would eat lunch for free.

As it is, the food service secretary said one third of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program based on household size and income.

"I think it should be taken advantage of even more than it is," Willbanks said. "It's a wonderful program. We want to give more free food."

She said the number of students on the program this year was the most she has seen in her 23 years with the district, though the percentage of students on the program has remained steady with an increase in enrollment.

School District Finance Director Mark Rydberg said the percentage of students on the program last year was 32 percent, and it has increased to 33 percent this year, which he says is insignificant.

"The increase in students on the free and reduced lunch went up proportionally with student population," Rydberg said. "What this says is there are a certain number of people who are eligible for the program. But still, probably not everyone who is eligible applies. There are all types, and there are some people who don't want handouts from the government or from anyone."

Although not all eligible families want or know how to apply for free or reduced-price lunch, Rydberg encouraged the use of the federally funded program.

"We want our kids to eat breakfast, and we want them to eat lunch," he said. "Sometimes, people might fall on hard financial times, and kids might be missing breakfast or lunch. There's just no reason for that. We have a program that is free."

Food services director Judy Baker agreed that the program should be widely used, but she acknowledged there is a stigma surrounding the free-lunch program.

"We live in a small farming community, and people take a lot of pride in what they do," Baker said. "They're not really that eager to ask for help. But I think the economic downturn might have changed that."

She said the program is confidential, and all applications are locked in the office. Students only have to give their names to the cashier when they check out at lunchtime, like any other student would. No one around would ever know they were receiving a lunch at a reduced price.

Currently, lunch for kindergarten through fifth grade is $2.25 and sixth through 12th costs $2.50.

Students on the free lunch program can save from $450 to $625 per year depending on grade level and eligibility.

Adult lunches for faculty, staff and any parent or community member who would like to have lunch at the school costs $3.50.

The food services department operates as an enterprise fund independent from the district. It is self-supporting from lunch sales, federal support through the lunch program and cash snack sales.

As a nonprofit business, food services doesn't make any money, as all the proceeds go back into providing sufficient, nutritious meals for students.

However, the number of students on the program does have ramifications outside the food services realm.

Rydberg said the number of students enrolled in the program is used to determine the number of at-risk students, which in turn affects per-pupil funding.

However, Moffat County's at-risk percentage remains consistently average among districts statewide.

Other Northwest Colorado school districts have at-risk percentages as low as 7 percent (Steamboat Springs), while some Front Range schools, like Alamosa, reach almost 60 percent.

The eligibility rules for the program also help families in need with lab fees and book fees.

Willbanks said the number is fluid because applications can be turned in at any time during the year as financial situations can change often.

Still, Baker said that service will remain the same whether it is the families or the government paying for the meal.

The lunch program "is wonderful for the kids, if they apply," Baker said. "But the important thing is keep the kids fed well."

Nicole Inglis can be reached at 875-1793, or ninglis@craigdailypress.com.

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