MOUNT VERNON — School cafeterias are offering students more varied and increasingly healthful lunches. Some studies have found school lunches to contain fewer calories from fat, and more protein, fiber, vitamins and iron than lunches brought from home.
School cafeterias are also serving an increasing number of free and reduced-price lunches. Several students from various schools said they appreciated getting a free lunch at school because they either did not have food at home with which to pack a lunch, or could not afford the cost of a full-price hot lunch due to their families’ economic circumstances. Reduced-price lunches through the federal lunch program cost 40 cents.
East Knox has received about 5 percent more applications for free or reduced lunches, and Superintendent John Marschhausen estimates 35 percent to 40 percent of the district’s students will be on free or reduced lunch this year.
“We will never allow a student to go without lunch,” Marschhausen said, “even if mom and dad have not completed the required paperwork. We will limit options to simple meals, but we will not allow a kid to go hungry.”
A regular elementary lunch at East Knox costs $1.75; middle school or high school lunches cost $2. Parents can deposit money into their child’s account via an online program, Marschhausen said. That allows payments to be made via credit card if parents so desire, and also allows parents to see exactly what their children buy for lunch and receive e-mail alerts when the balance gets low.
Danville has a student population of about 672. At the high school, 42 percent are on the free/reduced lunch program. Forty-seven percent of middle school pupils participate in the program, and at the elementary level, 51 percent get a free or reduced lunch.
“What I notice this year is that more full-priced students are packing their lunches — a sign of the times,” said cafeteria manager Gayle Beck. “Even though students’ parents have jobs, those families are cutting back; no overtime or just one parent working, or the company has gone down to a four-day work week. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich and little pack of cookies or chips is still cheaper than [a school lunch at] $1.75.”
Fredericktown has also experienced a roughly 5 percent increase in free/reduced lunch applications. Food service supervisor Theresa Thompson said the total is now almost 33 percent of the student population.
“It seems like the primary kids tell others ‘Hey, I got my lunch free,’ but some high school students seem to believe it is something to be ashamed of,” Thompson said.
She said the district’s move to a point-of-sale system has helped keep the identities of those on a free/reduced lunch more private, and parents and students are now more comfortable taking advantage of the program.
Highland, too, has seen an increase in applications, according to Superintendent Tim Hilborn, with about 39.2 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunches. The district’s food service operation is self-supporting, and does depend on sales for revenue, but Hilborn said the board of education keeps a close eye on the operation.
“Students are not to go hungry at any time,” he said. “We will provide them with a sandwich and drink if needed.”
Jeff Lavin of the Knox County Career Center said participation in the free/reduced lunch program is up slightly from last year. He said roughly 39 percent of the students take advantage of the program. The career center uses the Nutrikids point-of-sale system, which is like a swipe card that is also used by students whose parents have prepaid for their lunches.
Last year, said Gail McClary, Centerburg’s food service manager, 18 percent of the elementary students and 15 percent of the high school students participated in the free/reduced lunch program. She said there has been an increase this year, due in part to a direct certification process through the Department of Job & Family Services — families do not need to file separate paperwork with the school.
McClary said Centerburg, along with other districts, tries to minimize the embarrassment students might feel if they are getting a free lunch. She said Centerburg cafeteria cashiers have a list which contains the names of students on free/reduced lunch, but also catalogues those whose parents have prepaid for lunches.
For Centerburg students who cannot afford a lunch, McClary said there is an emergency cafeteria fund supplied by The Salvation Army and private donations.
Nancy Bevan, food service manager for Mount Vernon City Schools, said last year cash sales dropped and the free and reduced sales increased.
“This year,” she said, “the same trend is evident, with an increase of 10 percent in free lunch participation, but cash sales and reduced lunch sales have dropped by 4.5 percent for the month of August.
“High school and middle school participation in the free and reduced lunch program has increased dramatically over the past two years,” continued Bevan. “There was a time when less than 20 percent of the students had approved free or reduced applications turned in. [This year] each school has over 35 percent approved for a free or reduced lunch, and the students do seem to be taking advantage of that benefit. The increase does not take them to the same level as the elementary schools, where the free lunch percentages are much higher. Most of the elementary schools have 40 percent or more of their students approved for the free lunch program.”
The schools accept lunch program applications throughout the year, and the superintendents said they encourage families to file the paperwork.
“This is important,” Marsch-hausen said, “as family economic conditions may change — especially with such an uncertain job market.”