On a recent fall day, the Centereach High School cafeteria served lunch to 951 students.
For 232 of them, it was a free lunch.
They qualified for free meals from the Middle Country School District, thanks to the federal program that helps feed public school children during the school day. In the past two years, over 44 percent more students in this middle-class district in central Suffolk County have enrolled in the program.
"The tight times in the economy are putting more of our families in a difficult financial situation, where they are looking for assistance," said William Kidd, assistant business administrator for the district.
It's a similar story across Long Island. An analysis of 29 school districts responding to a Newsday survey found the number of students in free and reduced-price meal programs has increased even as enrollments have dropped. Overall, nearly 16 percent more children are in such programs this year than four years ago.
The trend has been most pronounced in middle and upper-middle class districts over the past two years, as the recession hammered the local economy, causing job losses or reduced income.
Since the 2007-08 school year, students qualifying for free or reduced meals in the Three Village district rose nearly 39 percent, in Plainview-Old-Bethpage, 51 percent, and 55 and 61 percent in West Islip and Commack, respectively - although this population still represents a smaller fraction of overall enrollment.
"Pupils may be provided free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches on a continuing, intermittent or emergency basis when family circumstances require it. I believe that today's economic situation directly correlates to the increase in our district's numbers," Three Village interim Superintendent Donald F. Webster said in a written statement.
Social agencies and school officials point to the bleak economy and also a greater outreach among school districts as reasons for the jump in numbers.
"Middle-class children in middle-class neighborhoods are having problems with food security," said Paule T. Pachter, executive director of Long Island Cares Inc.-The Harry Chapin Food Bank. Her organization operates an after-school program that serves meals and snacks in several schools.
The 29 districts surveyed by Newsday have 31,102 students enrolled in free/reduced-price meal programs out of a total enrollment of 152,523.
Some school districts provide free lunches, others a combination of free and reduced. Some offer breakfast free or at a reduced price as well. A standard lunch costs $1.50 at the elementary level in the Mineola district, for example, and $1.75 at the high school, while reduced-price meals are 25 cents, the average price on Long Island.
Parents must apply to the National School Lunch Program and qualify according to income guidelines.
Students who receive free meals choose from the same menu as those who pay. Districts work hard to try to ensure children in the program are not publicly identified. In Middle Country, students enter an identification number at the cafeteria cashier; no one can tell who is receiving a free meal or who is on a prepaid plan, said Debbie Corrado, food service director for Whitson's Culinary Group, which manages the district's food service.
The bulk of the cost of free and reduced programs is covered by the federal government, not local school budgets. The number of students in the program factors into how much state aid a district receives.
Kidd said Middle Country wants to accommodate every child in need and has sent home reminders about the program and put notes on the lunch calendar. Two years ago, the district set up a phone help line to assist parents with enrolling in the program, which offers only free meals.
Playing with perceptions?
But some districts have been more reluctant, said Gwen O'Shea, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island. "There is a perception of perhaps we don't want other folks to think we have needs in our community."
But that mood is changing because of the sluggish economy, she said. "With the economic downturn and number of folks directly impacted, there is a greater level of sympathy for folks who are struggling."
Anne, a mother of three in Westbury who asked that her last name not be divulged, said she enrolled her children in the free and reduced lunch program about a year ago. She lost her job as a bus driver and has not found other work.
"If they didn't have food in school, they wouldn't be able to do what they do," she said. "They would be hungry."