At Dublin City Schools, 15 percent of students use the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program.

At Dublin City Schools, 15 percent of students use the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program.

The use of the program that provides school breakfast and lunch for free or at a greatly reduced price has risen in the district over the past 11 years, from 4 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2011, according to figures from the Ohio Department of Education.

As the district's enrollment has increased, so has the number of students on the lunch program.

Since the economic downturn began in 2007, the district's percentage jumped to the double digits. In 2006, 8 percent of students used the lunch program; in 2007, 11 percent used the program.

"We've seen a steady increase," district food-services director Brian Hunt said. "I've been in the district for the past six years, and there's been consistent growth."

"I think we would both agree it is a troubling increase no matter how you look at it," Superintendent David Axner said. "The results, I'm sure, are partly due to the economy and the recession and what is going on if you look at the district's area of growth. We have more growth in what is our Columbus area."

According to figures from ODE, 58 percent of the students at Wright Elementary School were on the free-and-reduced-price lunch program in 2011. At Riverside Elementary School, 51 percent were in the program. At the middle school level, 32 percent of Davis students used the program, and at Scioto High School, 26 percent (321 students) were on the program.

On the northwest side of the district, 1 percent of students at Glacier Ridge Elementary School used the program. At Grizzell Middle School, 2 percent (16 students) received free or reduced-price lunches. At Jerome High School, 2 percent (22 students) used the program.

The government-funded program is based on family income. For example, for the 2011-12 school year, a family of four with an annual income of $29,055 or less would qualify for free lunches. The same family with a weekly income of $796, or annual income of $41,348 or less, would qualify for a reduced lunch.

Hunt said reduced-price breakfast is 30 cents and lunch is 40 cents.

For Axner, a concern is that students or families might not apply for the program because of a negative stigma attached to receiving help.

"The bigger issue is that we're challenged sometimes to really support or encourage students to fill out the paperwork," he said. "If a student doesn't come forward and complete the paperwork, they're not one of those people in that statistic. Some students just don't want to do that."

The district uses a system that makes identifying students on the free-and-reduced-price lunch program difficult, Hunt said.

"We use a point-of-sale system in our district, which most do," he said. "It's more discreet. Kids have monies in their accounts. There's less exchange of cash anymore. Most kids go through the lines and put in an identification number."

The district hands out forms in August for the lunch program every year, Hunt said, and the state has a program to help get students registered.

"There is a process for the state called direct certification. We had a big push, from the federal level down to the state, to get a better direct certification process," he said. "If you're receiving food stamps or any other assistance, you're directly certified for free and reduced lunches."

Although the district has seen the number of students on the free-and-reduced-price lunch program increase since the recession hit, Axner said, he's seen similar circumstances elsewhere in the district.

"I think clubs and activities have found they're doing even more on donations and making sure people have food and a nice holiday and donations," he said. "In different ways, they're challenged more and more by people in need of donations or fundraising efforts. ... If you look at just four or five years ago, it was a different story. It would also appear that people are giving less."