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Monday, February 20, 2012

Participation in school lunch programs rises

As published in the Record Journal Friday February 17, 2012

By Russell Blair
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2225

WALLINGFORD — The number of students taking advantage of federal free and reduced lunch programs has risen 12 percent over figures from last year.

School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said that 982 students are enrolled in either program for the current school year, up from 875 a year ago. The district enrolls about 6,400 students.

The increase can be attributed to a number of factors, including the tough economic times and an effort to raise awareness of the programs. Food Service Director Sharlene Wong said previously that the district was ramping up its efforts to reach out to eligible families to encourage them to sign up. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.

“People are hurting,” said Board of Education Chairwoman Roxane McKay. “But I think Sharlene and all of our building administrators do a good job getting the word out to families.”

McKay, a Republican, said it was also important to note that families can apply for free and reduced lunch at any point during the school year.

“If there’s a layoff, or their financial situation deteriorates, that option is always there,” she said.

Because the federal rate of reimbursement is greater than what Wallingford charges for lunches, free and reduced lunch programs help put money in the cafeteria’s coffers. The cafeteria operates its own, self-sustaining budget, but has run a deficit each of the last two fiscal years.

“We don’t want to see more families on the program, but financially, it’s better for our budget,” McKay said.

Republican school board member Chet Miller said the program is a win-win.

“If they meet the criteria, we want them on it,” he said. “It helps us and helps them.” Miller said free and reduced numbers have risen sharply over the last two years.

“It’s amazing how much it’s grown,” he said.

In June 2009, 607 students were on free and reduced lunch, according to Record-Journal archives.

Menzo said that Wong puts information about free and reduced lunch on newsletters sent home each month.

“We’re making certain that we reach as many parents as possible,” he said.

School lunch prices rose by 15 cents in the current school year to help keep pace with the reimbursement the district gets for the federal lunch programs. Wallingford’s prices of $2 for elementary schools, $2.15 for middle schools and $2.25 for high schools are lower than schools of comparable size. The school district receives $2.77 for each free meal it serves and $2.37 for each reduced- price lunch, which costs students 40 cents.

The increases followed the passage by Congress in late 2010 of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The act contains a provision that schools participating in the federal free and reduced price lunch program have to charge a price for lunch that is comparable to the federal rate for free lunch. Wong said last year that the district was moving toward making the numbers more equal, but didn’t want to raise lunch prices drastically in one year. Any parent who wants to see if they are eligible for free or reduced lunch can call the school’s food services at (203) 949-5927.