KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For a couple tight weeks after taking in her sixth-grade stepson, Lisa Lewis fretted about how to pay for his school lunches.
Unable to find a full-time job, the 37-year-old works part-time at a Kansas City, Kan., daycare, earning minimum wage. On that money alone, she supports herself, her unemployed husband, her stepson and her 11th-grade son.
"I sometimes cry myself to sleep wondering how I am going to keep my family fed and things like that," Lewis said. "I'm making it but barely."
Her worries were eased when she found out she could get government assistance to pay for the younger boy's meals. Her older son already is part of the subsidized lunch program.
In the midst of a blistering recession, more families are flocking to the federal program that gives students free or reduced-priced lunches. Schools are watching for who enrolls in the program because it gives teachers insight into life at home and officials consider it a barometer of poverty.
The numbers are telling.
During the 2008-2009 school year, about 19 million students received free and reduced lunches, which is 895,000 more than the previous year – a jump of nearly 5 percent and that greatly outpaced the overall increase in school enrollment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. Typically, the increases are about 1 to 2 percent each year.
"We have seen record program growth over the past two years as we go through this difficult period," said Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Meanwhile, 78 percent of school nutrition directors surveyed in the fall said they had noticed an increased number of students eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals for the 2009-2010 school year, according to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that represents those who prepare school meals.
To qualify for the mostly federally funded school meal program, a family of four can earn no more than $28,665 for free lunch and $40,793 for reduced-cost lunches of no more than 40 cents. The guidelines are different in Alaska and Hawaii, where families can earn more and still qualify.
As more students get subsidized lunches, some cash-strapped districts say they are struggling to provide the meals with the amount of money the federal government provides. Schools are forced to dip into other parts of their budgets and they're pressing lawmakers for more funding. For all, it's a stark example of how the recession is hurting families.
In Nebraska, 67 percent of the Omaha Public Schools' 47,000 students are receiving free or subsidized lunches, up from 62 percent last year.
"This year principals have commented that it is the worst they have seen it in terms of families trying to just stay afloat," said district spokeswoman Luanne Nelson. "There has been a marked decline in family income."
The federal government picks up most of the tab for the subsidized meal program, with some states kicking in a small amount. The money is supposed to cover lunches, but the School Nutrition Association said many districts have to squeeze funds for the meals out of other areas of their budgets.
"The reimbursement rate for school lunches hasn't kept pace with the cost of goods," said Lynn McCawley, a spokeswoman in Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland. "This is especially true as we focus on selecting healthier school lunch choices. As the quality goes up so does the price."
However, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service said its most recent analysis, released in April 2008 and based on data from the 2005-06 school year, found that the reimbursement rate covered the cost of meals. The rate is recalculated each year to help payments keep pace with costs.
To help schools further, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is urging Congress as it prepares to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act to dole out more money.
Regardless of whether districts are losing money or breaking even, they are watching the subsidized meal numbers with interest because of what it signifies their students face at home.
"Families are struggling more and more," said Jennifer Adach, of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, who notes that demand for food stamps is also up.
In the Columbus, Ohio, area, about half the students in South-Western City Schools district receive subsidized meals, and officials say they try to ensure the meals are very nutritious.
"It drives us to make sure we are serving fresh fruits and vegetables every day and whole grains, foods that they might not have access to at home," said Beth Glitt, who oversees the district's foodservice department.
And when life is not stable at home, everything changes. Superintendent Mike Mathes, whose district is on the outskirts of Topeka, Kan., said one of the most heartbreaking stories he has come across is 11 students from three families crowded into a rental home and a trailer parked outside.
"The number one priority in those kids' lives isn't school, it's surviving," Mathes said.
His staff received training on teaching students in poverty as the district's free and reduced-price numbers grew.
Among other things, teachers are being advised to think hard about asking students to bring $5 for a field trip or $10 for a class T-shirt.
"Now with a third of our kids living in poverty," he said, "they may not have $5."