DeKALB – Area school cafeterias have grown busier over the years making lunches for students whose families may be unable to afford to provide breakfast or lunch for them.
This year, 53 percent of DeKalb School District 428 students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, compared with 38 percent in 2009. In Sycamore School District 427, 29 percent of students are eligible, compared with 6 percent in 2009.
Statewide, half of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Five years ago, the number was 43 percent. For the most part, families' eligibility for the program is not verified – school officials are only allowed to audit 3 percent of all applications.
Andrea Gorla, assistant District 428 superintendent of business and finance, said a federal regulatory body which oversees the lunch program sets those standards, and auditors from the Illinois State Board of Education enforce it.
"Every four years it can change depending on who's in office," Gorla said. "There were times when you'd audit everybody."
The district performs the audits after computers randomly select 3 percent of families and has them show proof of everything they've submitted, including bringing in pay stubs and address verification, Gorla said.
"[Illinois State Board of Education] auditors come through periodically to make sure we're only auditing 3 percent and to make sure we meet nutrition guidelines,"
District 428 Superintendent James Briscoe said the high eligibility numbers exist because of the economy.
"Supposedly, the economy is recovering. We're not seeing it in our district," Briscoe said. "It's a very slow recovery."
Lunches, which are funded by the state and federal governments, are given to students whose families qualify based on income eligibility guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which change every school year.
The federal school lunch program, which was initiated in 1946, costs the federal government about $15.7 billion in fiscal 2013, which ended in September, according to the USDA.
According to USDA guidelines, children from a household of four qualify for free lunches if their family earns $30,615 or less annually. They can receive reduced price lunches with an income of $43,568 or less. The qualifying incomes have increased 14 percent over what they were five years ago, records show.
Students who receive a reduced-price lunch pay 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast.
Although District 428 gives away many lunches, in some cases they actually receive more in reimbursement than they are charged. The district receives $2.99 for every free lunch through the federal nutrition program, and another 5 cents from the state. Meanwhile, Chartwells, the district's food-service vendor, charges $2.10 for each lunch, 94 cents less than the reimbursement amount.
Although districts are having no trouble feeding the students who receive free or reduced lunches, they do have issues with funding extracurricular activities.
The districts can't impose school fees upon students who receive free lunches, Gorla said. Those who qualify for reduced lunches pay 50 percent of extracurricular activity fees.
"We're now at a place where the majority of students are not paying for registration fees because they qualify for free or reduced [meals]," Gorla said.
Briscoe said the high meal eligibility numbers are a reality for the entire community.
"The hope is the economy will come back and people will get jobs and generate revenue," he said.
Kathy Countryman, superintendent of District 427, said they will continue to monitor the free and reduced lunch issue.
"We're keeping an eye on it to ensure students who do qualify, if they have any other needs, we're reaching out to them and making sure everyone is ready to learn when they walk through the door," she said.
Income eligibility guidelines for 2013-2014
2 (household size): $20,163 (annual income)
6: $41, 067