Wednesday, September 21st, 2011
By Shelley Grieshop
Program feeds record number
Free and reduced meals at schools cost billions nationwide
  A record number of local parents are seeking help to feed their children at school.
The number of area students receiving free or reduced lunches has risen the last five years in every school district in the Grand Lake area. This year, 45 percent of Celina City Schools' students are enrolled in the federal lunch program.
"It's probably because we're the county seat," school superintendent Matt Miller said about the high percentage. "There's a lot of (social) services based here in Celina."
He also noted the city has a wider variety of housing available, such as low income apartments, compared to neighboring communities.
Other area school districts with high enrollments in the program are Parkway Local Schools (41 percent) and St. Marys City Schools (36 percent).
Statewide, 44 percent of students from preschool to 12th grade received free or reduced meals at school last year, an increase of 14 percent from five years ago, according to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).
Nationwide, the program cost taxpayers $9.8 billion in 2009 - the most recent figures available.
The National School Lunch Program offers free lunches for children of parents with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. For example, a family of four must have an annual income of less than $28,665 to be eligible.
To qualify for reduced lunches, family incomes must be at or below 185 percent of the poverty level. For a family of four, that would be $40,773. Students in the program can be charged no more than 40 cents per meal.
Parents apply for the program once a year; Oct. 1 is the deadline.
ODE spokesman Patrick Gallaway said Ohio schools are subsidized for the meals they provide to qualifying students. The state pays districts $2.72 for each free lunch and $2.32 for each reduced lunch served. Subsidies also are given for free and reduced breakfasts and snacks.
Despite the reimbursement from the federal government, schools still feel a financial pinch due to legislation passed two years ago. The law waives nearly all student fees for families who qualify for free lunches and reduces fees for those eligible for reduced lunches.
"That works for any fees tied to instruction," Laura Klosterman, treasurer for Minster Local Schools, said.
Schools cannot collect fees from eligible students for costs such as workbooks and art supplies but can charge for expenses associated with field trips or special events, she said.
The absent funds directly affect each district's general fund, Klosterman said. The lost dollar amounts fluctuate each year depending on classes; figures were not available.
The increase in local participation in the federal lunch program is consistent with the rise in the number of families seeking aid from local food pantries. CALL Food Pantry in Celina, the largest in the area, is feeding 30 percent more people than one year ago.
Food pantry director Tim Clutter said Mercer County's unemployment rate - the lowest in the state at 5.8 percent in August - masks the problem. Many people have returned to work at reduced hours or simply have run out of unemployment benefits, still can't find work and are no longer counted, he said.
"As basic living costs rise more families fall behind," Clutter said. "Gasoline and food prices continue to move up, which constricts families budgets making it harder to make ends meet.
The scenario isn't new, he said. Needy families just weren't tracked as efficiently decades ago because they didn't always seek government-funded support, Clutter said.
"Past generations could lean on friends, neighbors and their church to help them through rough times," he said.
Joseph Cavanaugh, economics professor at Wright State University-Lake Campus in Celina, said the most recent recession is having lasting affects on many.
"The latest economic downturn has been unusually severe and long," he said.
Unemployment and the number of families in need always spikes upward in recessions but families remain vulnerable for much longer, he said.
"This is because many of the newly unemployed have savings and other assets that allow them to avoid asking for help at the beginning of a recession. When the economy turns around and the unemployment rate falls, the opposite occurs," he said.
By the time the economy improves, many families already have exhausted their savings and must seek assistance to survive, Cavanaugh said.
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