The number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches dipped far below expectations this fall, even as surrounding districts have seen an increase in demand.

The number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches dipped far below expectations this fall, even as surrounding districts have seen an increase in demand.

About 30 percent of Ashland's students are eligible for the national program, which provides free breakfast and lunch to the neediest students and 40-cent meals to many more. In September, 888 students qualified for the meals, but that number dropped to 761 in October, when families must reapply to continue receiving assistance, said Jeff Ashmun, regional manager of Sodexo, which provides food service to Ashland and five other local districts.

By November, a total of 829 students were registered, still below what the district anticipated, especially given the worsening economy.

"It's coming back up again, but still not as much as it possibly could or will," Ashmun said.

December totals were not yet available.

An October dip is expected in all districts while families reapply, but Ashland's is more pronounced. The decline could be due to eligible families moving out of Ashland, but it is likely that people don't realize they could qualify or that they must reapply, he said.

Eligibility is largely determined by applications for free meals at the beginning of the school year, and families receiving food stamps or other government aid are also automatically eligible, Ashmun said.

According to federal guidelines, single parents with one child qualify for reduced prices if they make less than $25,900, for example, and a family of four qualifies with an annual income under $39,220.

District impact

If the numbers stay low, the district could lose some federal Title I funding, aimed at providing extra support for disadvantaged children. The school district used most of the $625,000 in Title I funds it received this year to pay for educational assistants and child development specialists, according to Michelle Zundel, director of educational services for the district. The money is also used for summer school programs and services for homeless students and families who speak English as a second language.

The money is targeted at elementary students, especially up through third grade. Some schools are required to limit programs to kids needing extra help, but Walker and Helman elementaries get enough to support the entire school because more than 40 percent of students were eligible at one time, she said

The amount awarded to the district also depends on free meal eligibility.

"If our numbers go down, our award from the state also goes down," she said. "Even if a student doesn't eat a meal at school, it is a huge support to the school district for families to fill out those eligibility forms because it determines the total award that we get from the state."

The free lunch program is completely confidential and can start at any time during the school year, Ashmun said. If a family's income status changes at any time during the year, due to a job loss or reduced hours, for example, parents can also reapply at any time.

"I think there are some people who are embarrassed about receiving assistance in any form," he said. "The thing is though, that this program is so great because the only thing that it can do is feed children, and what could be wrong with that?"

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.