South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Participation varies by school district in federal free, reduced lunch program

Money saved biggest benefit for families, Koester tells Call

Two south county school districts show differing trends for participation in the federal government-funded free or reduced-price lunch program.

Lindbergh Schools has seen a decrease in its use of the program, while the Mehlville School District’s use has increased.

Lindbergh Chief Financial Officer Pat Lanane said in the 2010-2011 school year about 15.5 percent of total enrollment used the program. With an enrollment of 5,730 students last year, 889 participated.

This school year, about 12 percent of students use the program, with 722 of the district’s 5,880 students receiving free or reduced lunches. Lindbergh Schools charges $2.40 for lunch.

Lanane said one reason for the decrease is the district is one more year closer to phasing out its participation in the voluntary transfer program.

Lindbergh Schools are to the point where grades eight through 12 “have a significant number of city kids, who proportionally have a higher number of free and reduced lunch participants.”

“We just have a smaller population coming from extreme poverty situations,” Lanane said. “(The number of participants in the program) is directly proportional to how many kids do you have that live under the poverty level, and how many live above.

“If there’s a higher density of poverty, you’re also going to have higher number of kids participating in the program.”

The decrease in the program’s use also gives Lanane hope that the economy in the south county area is improving. He said several people have told him they found work in the last six months or so.

“My wish is that this does represent an improvement in the economic times for south county,” Lanane said. “I hope that this means the local economics have improved from one year to another, and again, I do hear stories from people that would indicate this is true.”

Katie Koester, director of school and food nutrition for Mehlville School District, said a 3-percent increase occurred in the program’s use from the 2010-2011 school year to the current school year.

The increase went from 27 percent, or 2,970 students, to 30 percent, or 3,300 students, as of November.

Mehlville has an enrollment of roughly 11,000 students. Lunch costs $2.35.

“In a household where five years ago, both parents were working, now one of them lost their job (and now they’re) not bringing in as much,” Koester said. “Just the economy itself (has increased use in the program) and people … need any support they can get.”

Applications for the program are sent to every family in both school districts. However, if a family uses food stamps, those names come to the district from the state, and they automatically qualify for the free or reduced-lunch program, according to Lanane.

Eligibility for the program lasts an entire school year and includes a 30-day grace period into the following school year for reapplication.

A grid is published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with guidelines that determine who qualifies for free or reduced lunches, Koester said.

For the 2011-2012 school year, annual income for federal poverty guidelines ranged from $10,890 to $37,630, depending on household size.

These numbers increased from the 2010-2011 school year, where the range was $10,380 to $37,010, according to federal Food and Nutrition Service Income Eligibility Guidelines.

Lanane said the length of time a student or family remains in the program is “about half and half.”

“I’d say you have a portion that just live in severe poverty and those families tend to stay on (the free and reduced lunch program) the entire time and that’s probably half the families,” Lanane said. “The other half are on (the program) for a very short period of time, just trying to utilize all the resources they (can).”

Every application for the free and reduced lunches program has to be reviewed by the district and the state of Missouri, according to Lanane.

“About every three years, the state of Missouri makes sure we’re signing off correctly, that we’ve applied financial standards correctly …,” the Lindbergh CFO said.

If families apply at the beginning of the school year and their financial situation improves within that year, they remain on the free or reduced lunch program the entire year, according to Koester.

However, if they reapply the following school year with the improved income, they may not qualify.

“Unfortunately, we do have families on either reduced or free (lunches) because their financial situation has not changed, and they still qualify for the free or reduced lunch program,” Koester said.

The biggest benefit for families on the program is the money saved, according to Koester.

“That’s $3.25 a day they don’t have to spend with their child and they know they’re eating a warm, nutritionally adequate meal … They could use the $3.25 to pay bills, to pay a house payment, whatever it is,” she said. “It definitely takes off a little financial burden, if you will, of not having to worry.”

Regardless of the length of time using the program, Lanane said it is a major benefit for students because of the correlation between eating healthy meals and learning.

“You know that very high risk kids are getting at least one, and with breakfast, two, nutritious meals (per day) and the research is so clear that children receiving good nutrition are much more willing and able to learn, so we think that it really has an educational function and is not just simply a food give away program,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct price for lunch in the Mehlville School District.

More to Discover