In a year when the economy is weak, a survey by the School Nutrition Association, which represents workers who provide meals for school-age children, reports that almost 80 percent of schools they surveyed are reporting an increase in the number of free lunches served this year.
The number of students receiving free and reduced lunches at Le Mars Community Schools has increased slightly, according to figures provided by the district's business manager Sandy Downing.
According to November 2008 figures, 330 students are eligible for free lunches and 135 for reduced lunches. That compares to November 2007 figures of 304 students eligible for free lunches and 138 students eligible for reduced lunches.
In November 2007, a total of 1,800 students ate lunch at the school each day.
In November 2008, an average of 2,100 students ate a school lunch on any given day.
Eating lunch at school is cheaper than eating out.
"We are seeing more kids eating at school," Downing said. "The numbers are up at the high school as far at students eating a hot lunch at school."
Parents of children in the Le Mars Community School District can take advantage of the free and reduced lunch program by filing an application with the principal at their child's school building.
Every family gets the application and information when they register at the beginning of the school year, according to Downing.
Information needed in the form includes names of all individuals in the household, a list of the students and their grade in school, and a report of total household income.
"If a family qualifies for food stamps through the department of human services, they automatically qualify for free and reduced lunches," said Lynn Janssen, LCS district secretary.
The applications are reviewed by the building principals, who then notify parents of acceptance for the program.
With the district's computerized system of keeping track of students' lunch accounts, no one knows if a child is paying for his or her lunch or receiving it through the free and reduced-lunch program.
At the elementary level, students go to lunch by class, according to Marvella Evans, Clark School secretary.
"Each child tells me if they are eating hot lunch, and if they are then I scan the bar code on the class list," Evans said. "That automatically takes the cost of their meal out of their lunch account."
When a student's account is low on funds, a receipt is printed and given to the student to take home, notifying parents they need to send money for the student's lunch account.
At the middle school and high school level, students have a card with the bar code which is swiped at the lunchroom.
"It's all bar code scanned, just like at the store," Evans said.
Currently the price for student lunch at Le Mars Community Schools is $1.50. That's up 10 cents from last year. Breakfast also rose a dime to $1.
In a Daily Sentinel story on school lunch prices at the beginning of the school year, Judy Lubben, LCS's director of food services talked about the rising costs.
"Bread went up. Fruits and vegetables went up. Flour went up," said Lubben. "It's your basic foods. It's everything."
Milk prices jumped 24 percent in the last year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's price index.
Bread prices also rose by 30 percent and egg prices by 63 percent.
On top of that, the government is cutting back on the commodity foods they supply to schools, according to Lubben.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is preparing to re-examine a variety of child nutrition programs, many of which expire next year.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the panel, said he wants the program to help low-income children avoid diet-related problems such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
(Some information for this story provided by the Associated Press.)