There is such a thing as a free lunch. And school districts across the country report that kids are eating many more of them as the flailing economy hits families hard.
The National School Lunch Program fed more than 30 million children in the 2006-07 school year with federal and state funds. According to the School Nutrition Association, which represents workers who provide the meals, almost 80 percent of schools surveyed by the organization are reporting an increase in the number of free lunches served this year.
Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington said more families are signing up for free school lunches for their children as they look for ways to trim their food budgets.
"One of the easiest things families can look to for support is the school nutrition program," she said.
Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Children from families with slightly higher incomes are eligible for reduced price meals, which were also being served at higher levels. The organization said an average of 425,000 more students are participating in the programs overall.
As those numbers rise, schools could feel their budgets stretched as well.
Most schools receive free fruits and vegetables from the Agriculture Department and $2.57 per free lunch served - a reimbursement that many school nutrition directors say is not enough to produce a meal. Many have been calling on Congress to boost the reimbursement so schools don't face a loss, especially as food and energy prices have fluctuated in the past year.
"We want to make sure Congress understands the importance of these school-based nutrition programs," said Dr. Katie Wilson, president of the School Nutrition Association and a school nutrition director in Onalaska, Wis. "The money being reimbursed to schools continues to fall short of the actual costs."
Nutritious meals are key to the program. No more than 30 percent of calories can come from fat and less than 10 percent must come from saturated fat. The lunches are also supposed to provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories over one week's menus.
But as school budgets tighten, some have suggested they may have to offer less nutritious meals to make ends meet. An Agriculture Department report earlier this year suggested that nutrition and costs do not have to be at odds but the economics of providing school meals should be further investigated.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is preparing to re-examine a variety of child nutrition programs, many of which expire next year.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the panel, said he wants the program to help low-income children avoid diet-related problems such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.