More people took advantage of the Scottsdale Unified School District’s free lunch program this summer, which school officials attribute to the economic downturn.
|http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/images/photos/2008/07/30/gsevbqw2.gif" alt= " Free summer meal program June 2007 to June 2008 comparison, Graphic by Amanda Keim, Gabriel Utasi/Tribune, Source, Scottsdale Unified School District" vspace="0" hspace="0" border="0" />|
With 35,444 meals served this June, the Scottsdale district saw a 53 percent increase in the number of free meals it served compared to last year, said Patti Bilbrey, the district’s food service operations manager for middle schools and high schools. And while final July numbers won’t be available for another few days, Bilbrey is estimating a 20 percent increasei over last year’s overall number of 54,405 meals served.
The district is one of several around the country that offers free meals to kids in low-income areas over the summer. Districts get federal reimbursements for these programs, which are funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered through the state Department of Education.
Other East Valley districts saw trends comparable to Scottsdale. Chandler served 20,934 meals served over the course of this summer compared to 13,960 last year, while Mesa served 126,836 meals this year and 118,724 last summer.
It will be a few months before the Arizona Department of Education has numbers from around the state compiled, but anecdotally, similar things are happening elsewhere, said Mary Szafranski, the department’s deputy associate superintendent for health and nutrition services.
“I think one of the reasons that the numbers potentially can go up is potentially because of the economy,” Szafranski said. “When gas prices and food prices are so high and people struggle to meet their financial obligation, a lot more qualify for the summer feeding program.”
Some of Scottsdale’s increases came from offering the program five days a week instead of four at some locations, Bilbrey said. But the amount of increases can’t only be attributed to the extra day, she added.
Scottsdale also noticed more groups of children come in with caregivers, which was unusual, Bilbrey said. And more children at the two Boys and Girls Clubs locations where the school district ran the program took advantage of the free lunch instead of packing their own this year.
“If I were a parent and I were sending my child off somewhere, if there’s a lunch provided that were free, why not take the lunch and put that money in your pocket? Or your gas tank?” Bilbrey said. “People are being hit with some expenses they weren’t expecting.”