Free Lunch

By: Michelle Rosel
By: Michelle Rosel

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More than half of Wichita families can't afford to pay for their child's school lunches. It's a startling statistic that is gradually getting worse.

Every year, Kansas's school districts see about a one percent increase in families applying for free or reduced school lunches.

This year, that number climbed to eight percent, and it may be a matter of time before families need more than just free meals.

It costs only $1.50 for a warm lunch at Black Traditional Magnet Elementary School. It's a meal now nearly 70 percent of these children's parents can't afford to pay for.

"When you're talking about food and clothing as items, these are essential items," said Principal Craig Bright.

Bright says most of these kids come from working, middle-class families. They get help from the Federal Government's free and reduced lunches.

This year, districtwide USD 259 has nearly 30,000 students eating free. That's 61 percent of all students.

Deputy superintendent Mark Evans blames the sluggish economy and layoffs. Fortunately, he says the government puts no restrictions on how many students can eat free.

"Without that program many students would be hungry, we know that has an impact on learning," Evans said.

Free meals now, but what's next? Schools may be forced to go beyond educational needs to make sure kids are getting the basics.

"We're having kids come to us for needs hats and gloves to things as small as socks," Bright said.

The concern now isn't that kids will go hungry. But, if more parents are depending on financial aid what will happen to extra curricular activities if parents can't afford a musical instrument or a pair of sneakers? Times are definitely changing, and school officials fear it's not for the better.

More than 93 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches at Cloud Elementary, while Northwest High School has the fewest kids eating free: about 20 percent.

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