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Getting fed an important part of school for many

Cory Fisher

An alarming number of South Tahoe’s children will climb off the morning school buses this year with growling stomachs, anticipating their first meal of the day.

In order to keep pace with the rising cost of serving close to 4,500 meals a day, the Lake Tahoe Unified School District Board of Trustees recently voted to increase the price of breakfast from 50 to 75 cents.

This increase may sound harsh given that local food pantries continue to give food away to hundreds of needy households every month.

It might sound even more severe knowing that 692 South Tahoe families earn less than $12,500 annually, with 382 of those families falling below $10,000, according to state census data.

But as the district’s enrollment hovers near 6,000, what many don’t realize is roughly 45 percent of students are eligible for free breakfasts and lunches.

And at two of the district’s elementary schools – Al Tahoe and Bijou Community School – percentages are close to double the district average.

In addition to low-income households, children who are members of food stamp households or Aid to Families with Dependent Children are automatically eligible, as well as many foster children. Those who fall under the category of “reduced price” are also eligible for free meals in this district.

According to Kathy Smeltzer, analyst for the California School Nutrition Programs, South Lake Tahoe rivals many urban areas in terms of percentages of free and reduced lunches served. In neighboring Douglas County, only about 20 percent of students are eligible.

“For many kids, the only two square meals they get each day are at school,” said Sharon Barker of Tahoe Care Coalition. “And if you think about it, that means the whole family probably needs help.”

Frank Luna, program director for the Boys and Girls Club of Lake Tahoe, agrees. He has seen evidence of the growing problem at their summer program at South Tahoe Middle School. Attracting roughly 100 young people daily, each child pays a $10 flat fee in order to participate in the summerlong program with no additional costs.

“This is the first year we’ve been able to offer free lunches and afternoon snacks every day,” Luna said. “Before the food program, we’d have about 20 to 30 kids who were dropped off with no food – they didn’t have anything to eat all day. I think we now have more kids in the club partially because they know there’s an opportunity to come and eat.”

The high number of low-wage, seasonal jobs explains why there are so many struggling Tahoe families, Barker said.

“There are teachers who keep crackers and peanut butter in their classrooms for students who don’t get enough to eat,” she said. “We’re lucky to have teachers who care that much – it’s pretty hard to learn when you’re hungry.”

This school year – for those who are able to pay – lunch prices will remain at $1.25 for elementary schools, and $2 at the middle school and high school.

In order to maintain financial self-sufficiency, Child Nutrition Department Director Pat Howard says they have developed their own intradistrict catering service and are now attempting to keep high school students on campus by offering more “a la carte” items and food from McDonald’s, Port Of Subs and Straw Hat Pizza.

Although the district receives federal funding for “free and reduced” meals, declining enrollment, an increase in food costs and fewer surplus commodities distributed by the government have contributed to the breakfast price hike.

“We have to cover our expenses, but our prices are still relatively low compared to other areas,” Howard said. “Price doesn’t appear to be a hardship for those students who are able to pay.”

However, in the years to come, Smeltzer predicts the numbers of those able to pay statewide will continue to drop.


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