Free school lunch numbers continue to rise

During the past decade, the percentage of students participating in the Free and Reduced Lunch program has nearly doubled in some Butler County school districts.

The increase in participation, however, has risen at a much higher rate in two of the county’s largest suburban districts.

In the 2002-03 school year, Lakota schools reported an 8.44 percent participation rate. That percentage has more than doubled to 18.38 percent. Fairfield’s participation has tripled in the same time, from 10.54 percent to 32.57 percent.

In the 2002-03 school year, just over half of Hamilton’s students participated in the FRL program. While that number rose to 71.5 percent in 2012-13, that’s just a 0.7 percent for the current school year.

Middletown’s percentage of FRL students went from 41.74 percent a decade ago to 74 percent this year. The increase from last school year is 3.8 percent.

But according to some school administrators, the rapid increase may also be due, at least in part, by technology.

“In every district, we are changing the way kids pay for lunch,” said Greg Young, superintendent of the Ross Local School District.

“It used to be that students on Free and Reduced Lunch were given a card that they presented to the cashier,” he said. “But now parents (who pay for lunch) can call in and use a credit card or send a check to school and the money is put into an account.”

So when the child gets to the cashier, she simply punches in a number or the cashier will identify the child on a computer screen and credit their account. Therefore, no one except for the program administrators, not even the cashiers in most cases, know who is paying for their lunch or who is getting a free one.

“I think we’ve seen an increase in participation because of this,” Young said, “because there’s been a certain amount of stigma that used to be attached to being on Free and Reduced Lunches that has been removed.”

The purpose of the Free and Reduced Lunch program is to make sure that children are prepared to be educated.

A 2002 report “The Consequences of Hunger and Food Insecurity for Children” by the Center on Poverty and Hunger reviewed the research on the matter and concluded that hungry children had poorer health overall, including “elevated occurrence of health problems such as stomachaches, headaches, colds, ear infections, and fatigue.”

The poorer health also translated into “impaired cognitive functioning and diminished capacity to learn, lower test scores and poorer overall school achievement, repeating a grade in school (and) increased school absences, tardiness, and school suspension.

“The research findings highlighted in this report provide considerable evidence of the harmful consequences of food hardships for American children. They demonstrate that household hunger and food insecurity are linked to serious health, psychosocial, and academic problems for children that can, individually or interactively, impede normal growth and development,” the report concludes. “Most of these studies show adverse consequences of hunger and food insecurity for children over and above the effects of living in poverty or being low income.”

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