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Free or reduced lunch aid soars in public schools

RANTOUL-- At Broadmeadow Intermediate Grade Level Center in Rantoul, third graders quietly file through the cafeteria line and pick up a hot lunch of turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, corn and fruited gelatin. Eight out of every 10 children waiting in the lunchroom line this year are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Broadmeadow is one of six schools in Champaign County in which more than 80 percent of students are eligible for government meal assistance. In 2009, nearly 10,000 children '“ almost half of Champaign County's public school students '“ qualified for free or reduced lunches, according to an analysis of Illinois State Board of Education data. The students' family incomes were near the federal poverty line, which is $22,050 annually for a family of four. 

The number of county public school students eligible for free or reduced lunches rose from 32 percent in 2001 to 44 percent in 2009, according to an analysis of state data.

From 2001 to 2009, the number of Broadmeadow students eligible for free and reduced lunch climbed from 48 percent to 83 percent.

"We have a lot of single-parent families, parents who work late at night, into supper-time," said Principal Mark McCusker. The school cafeteria is the only place where some children sit down to a nutritious meal, he said.

Providing meals to students helps them to learn better, he said. "You can't do any serious learning until basic needs are met," he said.

Other schools also have seen dramatic increases in the number of students eligible for free lunch, including Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign. In 2001, 58 percent of the school's students were eligible for meal assistance. In 2009, that number was 82 percent, according to state education data.

In Champaign County, more than 8,300 public school students '“ 37 percent -- qualify for free lunch because their family income falls within 130 percent of the federal poverty line '“ or less than $28,000 a year for a family of four. Another 7 percent were eligible for reduced price meals. In order to qualify, a family of four could earn no more than $40,793, or 185 percent of the federal poverty standard. 

By Shelley Smithson



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