09/16/09 — Officials: More students likely to qualify for free lunches here

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Officials: More students likely to qualify for free lunches here

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 16, 2009 1:46 PM

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Kindergarten students at Carver Heights Elementary School are seen during their lunch period. More than 10,000 of the county's 19,000 students qualified for free or reduced lunches this past year.

More than 10,000 of Wayne County's 19,000 school children qualified for free or reduced lunches last year.

And school officials say that this school year, with the state of the economy and the number of jobless residents, those numbers might be even higher.

In the first 30 days of any new school year, applications pour in, said Barbara Ward, child nutrition director for Wayne County Public Schools.

"Based on the economy, a lot of people have lost their jobs," she said. "I feel like a lot of people have qualified for food stamps."

Eligibility is based primarily on the size of the household as well as family income, Ms. Ward said.

Some families are notified over the summer that they qualify, so they do not need to fill out another application, she explained. For others, it is important to go through the application process each year so the school system has a record of it.

Otherwise, once the paperwork is in, there is no need to reapply during the school year, unless any of the information changes, she said.

The child nutrition program is considered a non-profit organization, Ms. Ward said.

"We're not here to make money, but we have to cover our costs," she said. "We're self-supporting. We have to make whatever we make."

All money collected goes back into the program, she said -- paying for supplies and food, labor, equipment costs.

As such, it's hard enough to break even, much less turn a profit, Ms. Ward said.

Her department's budget is between $700,000-800,000 a month. According to last year's figures, an estimated 4,500-5,000 breakfasts are served each day and 13,000 lunches.

The program is sustained through federal reimbursements.

The district charges $1.25 for breakfast, $2 for lunch.

Those on free lunch pay nothing. Those on the reduced plan pay 30 cents for breakfast, 40 cents for lunch.

Breakfast reimbursements are $1.74 for those on the free plan, $1.44 for reduced and 26 cents for the paying child.

Lunch reimbursement is $2.70 for the free students, $2.30 for those on the reduced plan, and 27 cents for the paying student -- which means the district actually comes up short on those paying full price for the meal.

"We actually get less money for a full-paying child," Ms. Ward pointed out. For the free and reduced students, the reimbursement brings it up to a larger amount, while the paying student's federal supplement is less.

Still, the district tries to keep prices reasonable.

"We try not to charge them any more than we have to," she said. "We just went up last year. We did not go up this year. But it takes it, it takes every bit of it (to make the program run).

"I don't think that a parent could pack a meal for $2 and of course, it's nutritious and a hot meal."

The bottom line is that there is a need for nutritious meals, since for many students, that might be lacking at home. The district adheres to strict guidelines to ensure nutritional standards are met.

"We offer our own menu -- one fresh fruit or vegetable -- then choose from at least four choices of fruits and vegetables, students can choose two, plus an entree and milk," she said. "Students are required to take at least three components to be considered a reimbursable meal."

They can actually take up to five items, Ms. Ward said, but to avoid waste, students are not required to take more than they will eat.

"Hopefully out of everything we offer, something will appeal to them," she said.

To keep pace with healthy options and to respond to the obesity problem among youths, several changes have been made in child nutrition.

"We have gone strictly to baking, except high school, where we fry French fries," she said. "We offer wheat roles, pizza has wheat crust and peanut butter sandwiches have wheat bread because whole wheat is better for you."

Food allergies -- peanuts being among the leading culprits -- are also taken into consideration. Several county schools do not even allow peanut butter or related products.

"We have to have a diet order, sent through parents from a physician, with restrictions and what needs to be substituted," Ms. Ward said. "We try to accommodate as much as possible."

Cafeteria managers are made aware of special dietary needs. Since everything is computerized, messages are included on the student's account to flag the cashier should there be a potential problem.

To comply further, the district participates in a program called NutriKids, including a list of ingredients on recipes.

"We have to have a recipe for everything we do, even packaged items," Ms. Ward explained. "On those recipes we put on there the allergens so that those folks know it has soy, milk, peanuts. We put those on there so that our people are aware of what's in that recipe."

The district's menus are analyzed twice a year by the Department of Public Instruction, and monitored for ingredients and nutritional value.

To date, it has fared well.

"When it was revised last year, the only problem found was that we were a little short of meeting the iron target, but only slightly. So this year we have tried to get the rate up," she said.