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More students get subsidized lunches

Financial plights in Mass. families

By Rachana Rathi
Globe Staff / March 23, 2009
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The number of Massachusetts families seeking free and reduced-price meals for schoolchildren is rising as economic hardships extend to school lunchrooms.

School officials in Boston, Newton, Framingham, Needham, and Malden have reported increases in children receiving some kind of help paying for lunch since the beginning of the school year. Framingham's total jumped 25 percent. In Stoughton, meanwhile, more families whose children receive reduced-cost lunches are trying to join the free-lunch program, a sign that their finances are worsening.

Statewide, about 306,641 students were in the free and reduced-cost lunch program as of October 2008, an increase of about 4.5 percent from October 2007 when 293,347 students qualified, according to the Department of Education. The state did not have more recent figures available, but several districts said the numbers keep rising.

"Things are bad," said Brendan Ryan, food services director for the Framingham School District. "We have a constant influx of applications due to the rate that people are losing their jobs."

The federal government offers meals for children from low-income families at no cost or at a reduced rate. In many school districts, a reduced-price lunch costs $0.40. A regularly priced lunch generally ranges from $1.25 to $3.75. The program cost about $107.3 million in state and federal money last year. A family of four with a household income of $27,560 or less qualifies for the program. A similar-sized family with an income of $39,220 would qualify for a reduced-price school meal.

A review of schools in the region found increases in suburban districts - including some communities that are financially well off - and in urban districts, such as Boston, where participation in the program was already high.

In the Boston public schools, 42,099 students receive free or reduced-cost meals - about 74 percent of the total student enrollment. That's up from 71 percent of its total enrollment last year, said Helen Mont-Ferguson, director of the food and nutrition services department for Boston Public Schools.

In Framingham, 566 new students qualified for the program between September and February, bringing the total to 2,781, or about 36.5 percent of the district's total population of 7,800, Ryan said.

In Newton, as of January, 52 more students receive a free or reduced-cost lunch than in fiscal 2008, for an increase of about 5 percent. Stoughton has had a 6 percent increase in students who participate in the free and reduced-cost lunch program, bringing the total to 975 students out of a student body of 3,900, said food services director Edward Gilbert.

Families who don't qualify are also trying to save money. In Stoughton, for instance, more students are bringing lunch from home every day or are buying lunch three days a week instead of five, Gilbert said.

"I have talked to some people on the phone to clarify why they are applying," said Ruth Griffin, food service director in Needham. "It's the same type of story. The husband has lost his job and [the wife] has never worked [outside the home]. They don't have the money."

"And they don't want other people to know," she said, echoing another common theme across suburban districts.

Ryan said he has heard that refrain from parents: Their children don't want them to apply for free and reduced-cost meals because they feel ashamed.

"It's an internal stigma they have to deal with," Ryan said. "We implement the program so that at no time should their status be public, whether it is how they pay for lunch or what they eat for lunch."

In Newton, a private nonprofit that helps families in need reported a significant bump in families in financial crisis. Bill Garr, chief executive officer of the Newton Community Service Center, said many of them are people who have never needed assistance, and it's a blow to their pride to accept grants or now use food stamps.

"When you have a fairly large sector of the community that are people of means and have wealth, it's particularly tough to be the kid on the block that doesn't," said Garr.

Malden has had a nominal increase of 1 percent, or 32 students, getting free or reduced-price lunches between February 2008 and February 2009, bringing their total participation to 3,582 out of a student body of about 6,800, said food services director Cheryl Maguire.

But, she said, the number of students receiving free lunches has increased by 201 since February 2008, suggesting that more families meet the lower income threshold.

Waltham has not seen an increase - about 40 percent of the approximately 1,800 students in the district qualify for the program - but food services director Rhonda Spigel expects that to change soon. Spigel said school officials are concerned that families don't know they can apply any time during the school year, and are reaching out to bring it to their attention.

Rachana Rathi can be reached at rrathi@globe.com.

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