The number of students receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million last school year from 18 million in 2006-7, a 17 percent increase, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data from the Department of Agriculture, which administers the meals program. Eleven states, including Florida, Nevada, New Jersey and Tennessee, had four-year increases of 25 percent or more, huge shifts in a vast program long characterized by incremental growth.
The Agriculture Department has not yet released data for September and October.
“These are very large increases and a direct reflection of the hardships American families are facing,” said Benjamin Senauer, a University of Minnesota economist who studies the meals program, adding that the surge had happened so quickly “that people like myself who do research are struggling to keep up with it.”
In Sylva, N.C., layoffs at lumber and paper mills have driven hundreds of new students into the free lunch program. In Las Vegas, where the collapse of the construction industry has caused hardship, 15,000 additional students joined the subsidized lunch program this fall. In Rochester, unemployed engineers and technicians have signed up their children after the downsizing of Kodak and other companies forced them from their jobs. Many of these formerly middle-income parents have pleaded with school officials to keep their enrollment a secret.
Students in families with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty level — or $29,055 for a family of four — are eligible for free school meals. Children in a four-member household with income up to $41,348 qualify for a subsidized lunch priced at 40 cents.
Among the first to call attention to the increases were Department of Education officials who use subsidized lunch rates as a poverty indicator in federal testing. This month, in releasing results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they noted that the proportion of the nation’s fourth graders enrolled in the lunch program had climbed to 52 percent from 49 percent in 2009, crossing a symbolic watershed.
In the Rockdale County Schools in Conyers, Ga., east of Atlanta, the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches increased to 63 percent this year from 46 percent in 2006.
“We’re seeing people who were never eligible before, never had a need,” said Peggy Lawrence, director of school nutrition.
One of those is Sheila Dawson, a Wal-Mart saleswoman whose husband lost his job as the manager of a Waffle House last year, reducing their income by $45,000. “We’re doing whatever we can to save money,” said Ms. Dawson, who has a 15-year-old daughter. “We buy clothes at the thrift store, we see fewer movies and this year my daughter qualifies for reduced-price lunch.”
She added, “I feel like: ‘Hey, we were paying taxes all these years. This is what they were for.’ ”
Although the troubled economy is the main factor in the increases, experts said, some growth at the margins has resulted from a new way of qualifying students for the subsidized meals, known as direct certification. In 2004, Congress required the nation’s 17,000 school districts to match student enrollment lists against records of local food-stamp agencies, directly enrolling those who receive food stamps for the meals program. The number of districts doing so has been rising — as have the number of school-age children in families eligible for food stamps, to 14 million in 2010-11 from 12 million in 2009-10.
“The concern of those of us involved in the direct certification effort is how to help all these districts deal with the exploding caseload of kids eligible for the meals,” said Kevin Conway, a project director at Mathematica Policy Research, a co-author of an October report to Congress on direct certification.
Congress passed the National School Lunch Act in 1946 to support commodity prices after World War II by reducing farm surpluses while providing food to schoolchildren. By 1970, the program was providing 22 million lunches on an average day, about a fifth of them subsidized. Since then, the subsidized portion has grown while paid lunches have declined, but not since 1972 have so many additional children become eligible for free lunches as in fiscal year 2010, 1.3 million. Today it is a $10.8 billion program providing 32 million lunches, 21 million of which are free or at reduced price.
All 50 states have shown increases, according to Agriculture Department data. In Florida, which has 2.6 million public school students, an additional 265,000 students have become eligible for subsidies since 2007, with increases in virtually every district.
“Growth has been across the board,” said Mark Eggers, the Florida Department of Education official who oversees the lunch program.
In Tennessee, the number of students receiving subsidized meals has grown 37 percent since 2007.
“When a factory closes, our school districts see a big increase,” said Sarah White, the state director of school nutrition.