by Victor Lopez
ODESSA--As the nation's economy continues to slump, more and more families are asking for help, even with school lunches. It's a trend that's starting to hit the Permian Basin. But things aren't as bad as they could be.
While there are some areas that are worse off than we are, Terry Gooch, Director of School Nutrition for E.C.I.S.D. says our local economy is helping cushion the blow for families falling victim to the crunch, "Currently, we've got less than 50% of students that qualify for free and reduced priced meals and again it's because our economy, still is healthy, in Odessa."
The numbers may have dropped 15% since 2004, but just recently Gooch's office has taken applications from families, who are still struggling to make ends meet, "Since Christmas, we've had approximately 25 people come in and say, 'Hey, we've been laid off or we've lost our overtime and times are tough for our family. Can we still qualify for meal benefits?' We have them fill out an application and in most cases, they have qualified," he said.
Many are misinformed about when they can and can't apply for these programs, thinking they can only do it at the start of the school year.
"Anytime a family notices an income change where they are struggling and can't pay for the meals, that's when they do need to qualify," Gooch clarified.
Many students may be ashamed to say they're getting free or reduced price lunches, worried about what others might say or think about them. So Gooch gives this advice to parents, "There is still a stigma associated with free and reduced priced lunches. We encourage parents to prepay on kids accounts. That way, when kids hit the register no one knows if that kid is free or reduced because our registers are programmed to say 'Thank You!'"
The local economy is still healthy. Not sure when the bottom may fall out, Gooch says they are watching the trends very closely, ready to take action, if and when they need to, "We'll be ready. If we need to feed more kids, we'll be prepared. Everybody will get fed."
This year, E.C.I.S.D. saw it's first price increase on meals, in five years. Elementary students pay $1.75 for lunch while secondary students pay $2.00.