With a new online application system available, the Sarasota County public schools are seeing an increase in the number of high school students applying this year for free and reduced-price meals.
Beverly Girard, the district’s food and nutrition director, said the online program began in mid-August.
“It encourages those who need the benefits to actually apply,” she said. “It’s been a real positive.”
The district began seeing a spike in applications for meal payment assistance in 2008, she said, when more county residents were out of work due to the recession. However, Girard said, the demand was greatest in elementary grades. It tended to decline for middle school students and even further for those in high school.
The anonymity of the online applications, she said, “is encouraging those who have been eligible all along” to seek assistance.
Furthermore, the online system is more cost-effective and also allows staff to process applications more efficiently, she said.
Girard had held off on implementing the online application process because she thought the families most in need of the service wouldn’t be able to access computers.
“I was encouraged by other (nutrition) directors; they said people will find a way, and they have,” she said.
Parents are able to use computers at their children’s schools, Girard said, and food-service managers can help with the process as well.
An interested parent may visit the district’s homepage and click on the “A-Z Directory” in the upper left-hand corner, then navigate to the Food and Nutrition Services page for the application.
The regular lunch price for elementary students is $2.05; the reduced price is 40 cents. For middle school and high school students, the regular price is $2.30, while the reduced price is also 40 cents.
The district does not have a complete count yet of the number of students this year who are eligible for the free and reduced-price meals, Girard said. A 30-day grace period enables any child who was eligible the previous school year to continue to get the service until his parents apply again for it this year.
Every family must submit a new application each year.
The number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches as of Sept. 15 was about 1,250 for the district, Girard said, which is an increase of about 500 from the 2010-11 school year.
“It’s still steadily increasing,” she said, but not at the pace she observed a couple of years ago.
The latest official district figures, from February 2011, show Emma E. Booker Elementary School with the highest percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price meals — 93.11%.
Among the high schools, North Port had the largest number of students receiving free and reduced-price meals — 60.3%. Sarasota High reported 42.65% of its student body was getting the service.
Sarasota High Principal Jeff Hradek said about 678 students are getting free meals this year, with another 160 getting reduced-price meals. That reflects an increase of about 200 from 2010-11, he said. The total student population is 1,990.
“People think they are being categorized if others know they are getting help,” Hradek said.
However, the online application process enables them to avoid the embarrassment. At the same time, the higher number of SHS students getting free and reduced-price meals may be indicative of a tougher economic climate.
“It’s great that we’re taking care of them,” Hradek said. “(Proper nutrition) helps (the students) focus in school better, and it helps them perform better.”
Sampling of Free and Reduced-Price Lunch Percentages — 2011
Pine View School 10.95%
Southside Elementary 24.45%
Sarasota Middle 31%
Ashton Elementary 32.44%
Riverview High 33.19%
Sarasota Military Academy 33.55%
Phillippi Shores Elementary 38.76%
Bay Haven Elementary 41.45%
Sarasota High 42.65%
Gulf Gate Elementary 52.17%
Brookside Middle 59.82%
North Port High 60.30%
Booker High 65.96%
Booker Middle 79.28%
Alta Vista Elementary 89.89%
Emma Booker Elementary 93.11%
District Average 50.34%