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Lunch crunch: More families requesting free, reduced school meals

An increasing number of Chilton County families are applying for free or reduced-price school meal plans.

In January 2010, about 60 percent of students enrolled in Chilton County public schools were benefiting from free or reduced-price meals, up from 52 percent in January 2008 and 54 percent in January 2009.

Child Nutrition Program Director Pat Clements said a higher unemployment rate is likely a factor in the increase, as families struggle to meet their monthly and yearly budgets.

“We kind of expected that,” Clements said. “I would probably think this is the highest it’s ever been.”

While no study has been conducted to pinpoint a cause, it’s no secret that many families have experienced a decrease in income due to layoffs or other reasons.

According to the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations, Chilton County’s unemployment rate was 10.3 percent in December, an increase from 9.9 percent in November. This was the last available rate from DIR. Also in December, Alabama’s statewide jobless rate was 11 percent.

The state closed out 2009 with an unemployment rate of 9.8 percent, DIR reported.

As for the meal statistics, there are a couple of factors that may have skewed the numbers.

“The guidelines have changed somewhat,” Clements said. “The income amount was lowered [from the previous year] in order to allow more people to be eligible.”

The income eligibility requirements for free or reduced-priced meals are set by the United States Department of Agriculture. Basically, a family of four must make $28,665 or less per year to qualify for free meals or $40,793 or less per year to qualify for reduced-price meals.

For each additional family member, you would add $4,862 to the yearly income figure.

Current rates for school meals are $2 for lunch and $1 for breakfast, or at the reduced rate of 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast.

Federal Programs Administrator Myra Davis said there has been no noticeable increase in homeless situations due to the economy.