• 18°

Schools to continue free summer lunch

As food prices continue to rise, keeping food on the table might be getting harder for some parents. For the fourth summer, children may eat lunch for free in Austin beginning next month.

Austin High School and Neveln Elementary will serve free lunch to children Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., June 7 through Sept. 3. Adults can purchase the meals for $3.50.

All children 18 years of age and under are eligible for the free meals regardless of income, citizenship status, residency or enrollment in public school.

Austin Public School’s director of food service Mary Weikum said the district implemented the national Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) in 2007 — after she noticed the percentage of students qualifying for free lunch during the school year kept creeping up.

“I was always worried about what was happening to these kids in the summer,” Weikum said. “I didn’t know if they were getting enough to eat, and that concerned me.”

To partake in the SFSP, lunch sites must be in low-income areas where at least half of the children come from families with incomes at or below the federal poverty level, making them eligible for free or reduced price school meals, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

It is also available for certain camps and in areas that would serve children of migrant workers.

At Woodson Kindergarten Center, and three of the four public elementary schools, more than 63 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. At Banfield Elementary, more than 50 percent qualify. At Ellis Middle School and Austin High School, less than 50 percent qualify, according to Weikum.

The summer meals will be served at AHS, even though its student body does not meet the federal poverty standards, because of its size and proximity to Sumner Elementary which does meet standards, Weikum said.

“Hunger is one of the most severe roadblocks to the learning process. Lack of nutrition during the summer months may set up a cycle for poor performance once school begins again,” according to the USDA.

Weikum said 36,000 lunches were served last summer, and that she expects to serve that many or more this season.

Each year since the district has served the summer lunches, the number of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunches has continued to increase.

“I really don’t expect that to change soon,” she said.

Data from the state education department shows that there was an 8.5 percent increase in the number of students on free and reduced lunch between 2009 and 2010 — meaning more than one in three students statewide received help from the federally supported program this school year.

No registration is needed for the summer lunches. They are served on a walk-in basis, Weikum said.

The Austin Public Library offers a concurrent free summer reading program for kids at both the library and at Austin High School this summer. For more information, contact the library at 433-2391.

There is also a variety of free and inexpensive programming offered by the University of Minnesota Extension Office and Austin Community Education. Contact 460-1706 or go toaustin.revtrak.net for more information.

Free lunch

When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, June 7 through Sept. 3

Where: Austin High School, 301 Third St. NW

Neveln Elementary, 1918 E. Oakland Ave.

Details: Free for children, offered to adults for $3.50. No registration needed.