The Lee County Public School District in Florida has a problem.
When classes resumed on January 3 after the winter break, as many as 1,100 students weren’t paying for their school meals.
The district, which is the ninth-largest in Florida, and the 40th-largest in the United States, was losing about $2,000 a week on its school lunches. (There are over 14,000 public school districts in the U.S. in total.)
Because the National School Lunch Program, or NSLP, requires participating schools to provide nourishing meals for all pupils, what do school administrators do if a pupil shows up in the lunchroom with no cash and with no money left in his or her electronic meal account?
Most raise their prices for kids who can pay, according to research by the nonprofit School Nutrition Association, which found that nearly 60 percent of public school districts raised lunch prices in 2009, the last full year for which national figures were available.
The Agriculture Department — which administers the NSLP — says roughly two-thirds of the 5 billion meals served under the program each year are free or are sold at a reduced price. That means you can’t keep raising meal prices indefinitely, because the burden is disproportionally borne by the pupils who buy the one-third of meals sold at full price.
So What Did They Decide To Do?
They came up with the same solution that’s being used in various schools across the nation: students who can’t pay get one free lunch per week. After that, they get an “alternate lunch,” which in Lee County is a cheese sandwich and a 4-ounce juice box.
What’s Going On Here?
The subsidized lunch program is available for families who have fallen below the government poverty line. With the recent economic downturn, many families are now eligible, but they either don’t know, or don’t like the stigma attached to the free lunch program.
And that really hurts districts like Lee County, since if a school can get more eligible children to enroll in the subsidized lunch program, the federal government will pick up more of the bill.
“Alternate Lunches” Being Served Around The Country
In Lee County, they’ve been working to inform needy families, and things are looking up, but MSNBC.com reports that “alternate lunches” of a sandwich along with juice or milk were being served this month in public school districts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington State.
All of this is extremely ironic, considering that the Agriculture Department is currently considering a proposal for announced last month that would require school meals to reduce sodium by half, serve more vegetables and whole grains, limit saturated fats and switch to low-fat milk and dairy products.
Let’s hope this mess can get sorted out.