Originally Published in the Saratogian: December 10, 2011. Click here to read online.

By SUZANNA LOURIE

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The number of students in the Saratoga Springs City School District who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch programs has spiked in recent years, mirroring a national trend caused by the troubled economy. High unemployment rates and greater financial uncertainty have resulted in lower annual household incomes.

“There has definitely been an increase in how many students are eligible this year,” said Margaret Sullivan, the director of the district’s school lunch program.

Since the 1940s, the federally assisted National School Lunch Program — regulated and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has been helping to ensure that children from low-income households have a balanced and healthy meal during the school day.

Students in families of four that have a household income of up to $29,055 are eligible for free meals. Children in four-member households earning up to $41,348 annually qualify for reduced-price lunches.

Sullivan, who has worked in the school district for 14 years, said the number of students who qualify for subsidized lunches has risen dramatically in the past few years.

The rising number of students eligible for the discounted lunch program does not affect local school budgets because the federal program reimburses the cost of each meal. In New York, the state goes a step further by covering the difference to offer reduced-price lunches at 25 cents as opposed to the 40-cent rate found in most states. In Saratoga Springs, the regular cost of an elementary school lunch is $2.50.

“There’s no downside to us having more students in the program,” Sullivan explained. “Hopefully, now more students will be eating the meals we’re providing and doing better in the classroom. It benefits all parties.”

Saratoga County remains well-off compared to many other parts of the country. U.S. Census data shows the 2009 median household income in the county was $66,634, compared to the national median household income of $50,221. Census data also shows that 6.3 percent of people in Saratoga County live in poverty, versus 14.3 percent in the United States and 14.2 percent in New York state.

Despite this, the local school district’s free and reduced-cost school lunch program numbers mirror the national trend.

In an analysis of data from the Department of Agriculture, the New York Times recently reported that the number of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches rose to 21 million during the last academic year, a 17 percent increase from 18 million in the 2006-2007 school year.

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At the end of the Saratoga Springs City School District’s 2006-2007 academic year, there were 1,155 students enrolled in the program. By May 2011, 1,347 students qualified — a 16 percent increase over a five-year period.

“I’ve noticed it. We have a lot more kids this year than before,” Greenfield Elementary School Cook Manager Judi Martone said. “The economy is really, really bad, and it shows.”

However, the troubled economy might not be the only reason the number of families participating in the free and reduced-cost lunch program has increased.

“I think part of it may have to do with the fact that the state now allows us to receive information on people whom they call ‘directly certified,’ ” Sullivan said.

Direct certification refers to a process conducted by state and local education agencies to allow children to receive free school meals without a household application, a requirement of the 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which has been phased in across the country. This is the first year the Saratoga Springs City School District has received the information this way.

“New York state now sends us an electronic file of people who receive particular state benefits such as food stamps, who automatically qualify for the free and reduced-cost lunch program, rather than each family having to send a letter to me,” Sullivan said.

Because the system is still in its trial year, families can still opt to mail in a form, but in the future, direct certification will automatically register children for the school lunch program. Updated information will be sent to the district three times per year.

“It makes it easier on the family. There can be confusion sometimes if they have to send the letter in,” Sullivan said. “It benefits the family and helps us provide benefits to people who should be getting those benefits, but maybe haven’t been in the past.”

Although the fact that more students are now enrolled in the subsidized meal program might represent a growing financial need in the community, it could also have a positive side by providing more children good nutrition they might not have access to otherwise.

“If kids pack a lunch from home, they’re usually getting non-nutritious food because non-nutritious food is cheap. They get Twinkies and other junk,” Martone said while taking homemade corn bread out of the oven at Greenfield Elementary School. “This is the best lunch they can get, and good nutrition is what’s going to help them settle down and learn in the classroom.”