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In tough times, more students get free lunches

WASHINGTON — A government program that serves free lunches to low-income children has become a rapidly growing resource for families that find themselves blindsided by the depressed economy.

Janey Thornton, director of child nutrition programs in Hardin County, Ky., says her school district is finding that many children who never thought they would need a free lunch are becoming eligible for the program, which fed more than 30 million children in the 2006-07 school year with federal and state funds.

"We have people in a situation who have never had a need to apply before and they are just plain embarrassed," Thornton said.

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.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Children from families with slightly higher incomes are eligible for reduced price meals, which were also being served at higher levels. The organization said an average of 425,000 more students are participating in the programs overall.

As those numbers rise, schools could feel their budgets stretched as well.

Most schools receive free fruit and vegetables from the Agriculture Department and $2.57 per free lunch served — a reimbursement that many school nutrition directors say is not enough to produce a meal.

Thornton, the Kentucky school nutrition director, said her district is finding ways to cut corners. They have gone back to serving milk in cartons, for example, despite the fact that children were more likely to drink it from plastic bottles. And like other school districts across the country, Thornton says she is faced with the dilemma that unhealthy foods are cheaper to serve than healthy ones.

But nutritious meals are key to the program. No more than 30 percent of calories can come from fat and less than 10 percent must come from saturated fat. The lunches are also supposed to provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories over one week's menus.

An Agriculture Department report earlier this year suggested that nutrition and costs need not be at odds, but the economics of providing school meals should be further investigated.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is preparing to re-examine a variety of child nutrition programs, many of which expire next year.