Free school lunches on the rise |

Free school lunches on the rise

Steamboat Springs School District sees increase of nearly 36 percent

Jack Weinstein

— More K-12 students are getting free lunches this school year in Steamboat Springs.

The number of Steamboat Springs School District students signed up to receive free lunches as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program increased nearly 36 percent this school year compared with 2008-09. That followed a nearly 24 percent increase from 2007-08 to 2008-09.

Numbers have decreased slightly in Hayden and South Routt.

The program allows students whose families meet income thresholds to get lunches for free or at a reduced cost. School districts are reimbursed monthly for each lunch they provide at no cost or a discount.

As of the Oct. 1 student count, which determines the amount of per-pupil funding the district receives from the state, 156 Steamboat students were enrolled to receive free lunches. That's just more than 7 percent of the district's 2,172 students — a number that includes North Routt Community Charter School. Last school year, 115 students were signed up to receive free lunches. The year before that, 93 students were enrolled.

Superintendent Shalee Cun­ningham said she suspected the increase was a result of the down economy.

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"I think a lot of people had jobs a couple years ago or last year that they don't have now," she said.

In addition to the students who are signed up to receive free lunches, 59 are signed up this year to receive lunches at a reduced price. That's more than the 50 enrolled each of the previous two years.

Economic factors

The trend in Steamboat follows one occurring across the country.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday that school districts in Missouri and Illinois had seen more students enroll in the federal free and reduced lunch program this school year. Newsday reported a similar story Oct. 25 about a surge in students participating in the program this year at schools on Long Island, N.Y.

Both stories cited the economic recession as the reason for increased enrollment in the program.

Last school year, the National School Lunch Program provided free and reduced lunches to 30.5 million K-12 students across the country. Numbers for the current school year are not available. In Colorado last year, 282,733 of the state's 790,163 K-12 students were signed up for the program, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education. That's nearly 36 percent.

Colorado schools aren't required to submit their Oct. 1 student counts until mid-November, and that information includes free and reduced lunch participation. Education Department spokesman Mark Stevens said the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches statewide wouldn't be available until December or January.

Stevens said those in his agency didn't want to comment before the numbers were available.

Lynn Warner, principal consultant for the Colorado De­­par­t­­ment of Edu­­cation's nutrition and transportation unit, said there was a general feeling that more people were using the free and reduced-cost lunch program.

In Colorado, a family of four must earn less than $28,665 for its children to be eligible to receive free lunches. A family of four in the state must earn less than $40,793 for its children to receive reduced-cost lunches.

Lunch costs $3 in Steamboat. School districts that provide free and reduced lunches to less than 60 percent of their students receive $2.68 for free lunches and $2.28 for reduced lunches from the National School Lunch Program.

Lunch prices vary slightly at Routt County schools. In Hayden, it's $2.50 for elementary school students, $2.75 for middle and high school students, and $3.25 for staff. In South Routt, it's $2.50 for elementary students, $3 for middle and high school students, and $3.50 for adults.

Because districts are reimbursed for providing lunches for free or at a reduced cost, the county's school districts said they do everything they can to promote the program.

"We really recruit," Cunning­ham said. "We do quite a campaign to inform families this is available."

Cunningham said the district works hard at the beginning of the school year to inform parents about the program. Hayden and South Routt send notices home with students after the first day of school each year.

"We encourage parents to fill out the paperwork because they benefit, as well as the district," said Jnl Linsacum, Hayden School District's business manager.

Negative connotation

The number of students signed up for the free and reduced lunch program is down slightly in Hayden and South Routt school districts.

Hayden Superintendent Greg Rockhold said he thought the drop in students signed up to receive free lunches — 90 this year compared with 93 in 2008-09 — was a reflection of enrollment dropping this year. The district has 27 fewer students than last school year. But Hayden saw a 60 percent jump in the free lunch program from 2007-08 to 2008-09, from 58 students to 93 students.

Rockhold also offered a different lunch trend.

"We do see the number of students eating in our cafeterias keep climbing in each passing week," he said. "I believe that goes to the quality of food (Food Service Director) Steve Carlson and (his staff) are putting out."

He said there also has been an increase in the number of high school students who eat lunch at school. High school students can go home for lunch.

The number of students in the free lunch program in South Routt dropped to 56 this year from 70 last year. The district's enrollment is only down two students. Superintendent Scott Mader said he didn't think the slightly lower enrollment affected the lunch program participation.

Instead, he said there might be a stigma associated with the program.

"I think oftentimes those figures are underreported by families who don't want it out there," Mader said and added that he thinks the figures are generally underreported. "I think there's maybe a certain amount of embarrassment they feel, and they shouldn't."

Mader said people might not want to ask for help, especially in rural areas, where people are self-reliant and have an "I can get through this" mentality. Mader said he's even seen situations where an elementary student was enrolled to receive a free or reduced-cost lunch, but a sibling in high school would not be signed up.

To prevent any negative connotation for being enrolled in the program, Steamboat Nutrition Director Max Huppert said students punch in a number or swipe their lunch card into the district's computer system. It recognizes whether the student is paying full price for the lunch or receives a free or reduced lunch.

"Parents should definitely take advantage of it," Huppert said. "It's completely confidential. No one can know except me or my staff when the children come through."

Free lunches

Number of students signed up:

Steamboat: 156 (2009-10); 115 (2008-09); 93 (2007-08)

Hayden: 90 (2009-10); 93 (2008-09); 58 (2007-08)

South Routt: 56 (2009-10); 70 (2008-09); 59 (2007-08)

Source: Statistics provided by each district, as of Oct. 1

Reduced lunches

Number of students signed up:

Steamboat: 59 (2009-10); 50 (2008-09); 50 (2007-08)

Hayden: 45 (2009-10); 38 (2008-09); 38 (2007-08)

South Routt: 41 (2009-10); 43 (2008-09); 45 (2007-08)

Source: Statistics provided by each district, as of Oct. 1


Family size — Income (free) — Income (reduced)

1 — $14,079 — $20,036

2 — $18,941 — $26,995

3 — $23,803 — $33,874

4 — $28,665 — $40,793

5 — $33,527 — $47,712

6 — $38,389 — $54,631

7 — $43,251 — $61,550

8 — $48,113 — $68,469

9+ — $4,862 — $6,919

  • multiply by number of children and add to 8-person-family income to determine eligibility

Source: Colorado Department of Education

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