Free, reduced-cost lunch numbers are on the rise in Routt County schools

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— More K-12 students in Routt County this year are receiving free and reduced-cost lunches, and in Steamboat Springs the numbers are breaking records.

In October 2010, the Steamboat Springs School District had 280 students, or 13 percent of its overall student enrollment, in the free and reduced-cost lunch program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program. As of this year’s Oct. 1 student count, 382 students were signed up to receive free or reduced-cost lunches. That number represents 17 percent of the district’s student population.

The number of students in all three Routt County school districts who are enrolled in the free and reduced-cost lunch program has increased dramatically since 2007 because of the economic recession. Four years ago, Steamboat had only 93 students apply to receive federal assistance to pay for their lunches.

In Colorado, a family of three must make less than $24,089 for its children to be eligible to receive free lunches, or less than $34,281 to qualify for reduced-cost lunches.

Steamboat Nutritional Services Director Max Huppert said this year’s numbers are a continuation of a trend that continues to mirror the economy.

“Gas is high, food is getting more expensive and there aren’t as many jobs out there,” he said. “The tanking economy is reflected in the (free and reduced lunch) numbers.”

Steamboat Superintendent Brad Meeks agreed that the numbers are a reflection of the economy. He also said increased communication between school districts and parents about the program could have contributed to Steamboat’s increase this year.

“We’ve recognized the changes in the economy and the life-changing events that come with them,” he said. “Because of that, school districts are being more communicative with the public about these resources than we’ve ever had to.”

He also said benefits outside of the school district, such as a recent Comcast promotion offering reduced Internet prices to some families enrolled in the free and reduced-cost lunch program, have the potential to increase the numbers.

Free and reduced lunch enrollment in Routt County

Countywide increase

Despite seeing their overall enrollment numbers decrease significantly this year, the Hayden and South Routt school districts still have experienced an increase in free and reduced lunch program participation.

Forty percent of Hayden’s 389 students are enrolled in the food assistance program, according to Finance Director Jnl Linsacum, a slight increase from the 150 students in the program last year when the district had 420 students.

South Routt added seven students to its free and reduced lunch program roster this year.

“Any change in these numbers really makes you aware of the situation our kids are in,” South Routt Elementary School Principal Raylene Olinger said.

Olinger said that out of all South Routt campuses, the elementary school saw the biggest jump in free and reduced lunch enrollment this year.

Administrators at the school districts and food service workers do not know which individual students or families are enrolled the program, and they still encourage parents who are eligible for it to apply.

As his district’s numbers continue to increase, South Routt Superintendent Scott Mader said the district’s launch of a new free breakfast program at the elementary school this year is another way to help families who are struggling.

“The numbers are part of the reason we did this as times get tougher,” he said, adding that the breakfast program, which is open to all students, is being funded through the free and reduced lunch program.

The district has served a total of 2,451 free breakfasts consisting of cereal, milk and fruit and crackers to students since Sept. 6.

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