SIOUX FALLS, SD -
The numbers are up when it comes to school lunch, but this particular number isn't one anybody wants to see. Nearly half of students in South Dakota now qualify for discounted meals.
More than 140,000 students are educated in South Dakota each day. And when it comes to lunch time, more than 40 percent of our state's children qualify for free and reduced price meals.
It's a number that's been climbing for more than 10 years, but took a more dramatic jump in recent years, coinciding with the latest recession.
"We all know that the food costs are rising. We know that utilities are rising. We know the price of gas is rising. So, we are all impacted by a variety of issues that are impacted all over the nation," Sioux Falls School District child nutrition specialist Joni Davis said.
South Dakota's numbers look like this: In 2002, an average of 33 percent of students qualified for free or reduced price meals. At the beginning of the recession, the average was up to 38 percent.
Last year the state topped out at more than 42 percent and officials with the Department of Education expect that number to be even higher in 2012.
In Sioux Falls, the trend is similar. More than 45 percent of students qualify for assistance from the federal meal program.
The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 re-authorized the federal lunch program. The main objective is to make sure all kids have access to the school lunch program.
"Getting something at breakfast and lunch is just critical. Our goal is to make sure that every child is able to succeed in the future at whatever they may challenge or attempt to do," Davis said.
"I like the variety that they have. They introduce a lot of new foods to my children. My children are Native American so they are not used to eating certain kinds of food and since we moved up here, they've tried different kinds of stuff," Sioux Falls parent Holona Romero said.
In addition to tougher economic times for families, Davis predicts the number of children qualifying for assistance is up because the national program uses a new reporting method where the paperwork doesn't need to go home in children's backpacks.
"We have had a larger increase this fall than in the past but I would share with you that one of the reasons is because of the Health Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010. Social Services departments electronically shares information with school districts on families that participate in the SNAPS [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program],” Davis said.
And in turn, the federal government reimburses school districts for the free and reduced price meals as laid out in the rules of the national meal program.
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