CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The number of students receiving free and reduced-price meals at Wyoming public schools increased this year, even though the state's economy has been steadily improving.
Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Education show that 37 percent of students in Wyoming receive breakfasts and lunches subsidized by the federal government.
The 33,052 students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals represent a 2 percent increase over the 32,384 in the 2010-11 school year.
"Definitely the trend is going up," said Tamra Jackson, nutrition program supervisor with the state Education Department. "Across the country, that is what the trend is."
Nationwide, some 21 million students are being provided free and reduce-priced meals each day, compared with 17 million in 2006, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, which administers the program.
Of the 30,052 participating in Wyoming this year, 24,110 are receiving free meals and 8,942 are getting meals at a reduced price.
Students' eligibility for free or cheaper school meals is based on their family's income. For example, children from a family of four with a household income of no more than $29,055 can get free meals. The same family with an income level of no more than $41,348 would be eligible for meals that cost 40 cents apiece.
Jackson said participation in the school meal program is going up because of the economy. Wyoming's economy has been slowly improving, however, with the unemployment rate falling steadily for six consecutive months to 5.4 percent in February.
There may be some lag between people's personal income increasing and the state's economy improving, Jackson said.
"Even if the statistics are saying that things are getting better, you still have families out there that are struggling," she said.
Jackson noted that the USDA has meal programs that aren't being fully used in Wyoming.
For instance, the school lunch program served about 9 million lunches, including students who pay full price for the food, during the 2009-10 school year, but a separate summer meal program only served about 199,600 meals in 2010, she said.