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More Free Meals To Greet US Students

Student Free Meal

Record job losses and skyrocketing unemployment mean more free and reduced-cost meals for students in the United States this school year. It appears the government will have to step up to the plate in a way it has not needed to do for 41 years.

The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program will see record numbers of applicants and participants this year, according to estimates by the US Department of Agriculture. At least 18.5 million low-income students will be sitting down to a free or low-cost lunch while more than 8.5 million are expected to line up for the free or reduced-rate breakfast.

The National School Lunch Program website notes that a family of four must have an annual income of no more than $28,665 to qualify for the free meals programs. Reduced meals are available to students whose family income does not exceed $40,793. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $22,050.

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Students whose families receive food stamps and those in homeless families or who are sharing housing with other families are automatically eligible for free meals. School districts across the United States are gearing up for an expected large increase in the number of children who will participate in the National School Lunch Program.

The National School Lunch Program operates in more than 101,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. In addition to providing free and reduced-rate meals, snacks are also included. Congress expanded the National School Lunch Program in 1998 to include reimbursement for snacks served in afterschool educational and enrichment programs.

While the Food and Nutrition service administers the program at the federal level, the program is usually administered by state education agencies at the state level. And while the adage “There’s no free lunch” may seem to ring false here, the federal coffers - and the taxpayers’ - are footing the bill. The current (July 2008 through June 2009) basic cash reimbursement rates given to schools that served less than 60 percent free and reduced rate lunches was $2.57 per free lunch, $2.17 per reduced-rate lunch, and $0.24 for each lunch paid for by students.

National School Lunch Program website
San Jose Mercury News 8/15/09