MUSKEGON, Mich. - More students have signed up for reduced-cost meals in Muskegon-area public schools, likely reflecting parental unemployment but also because students don't know any more who among them gets free lunch, food directors told The Muskegon Chronicle.

Compared to a year ago, the number of Muskegon Heights Public Schools students receiving meal subsidies rose by 13 percentage points as of September, The Chronicle reported. Oakridge Public Schools and Muskegon Public Schools reported increases of 11 and 9 percent, respectively.

"It's alarming for us," Mary Darnton, food service director for Grand Haven Area Public Schools, told The Chronicle. "It's a 25 percent jump over last year."

Schools today use computerized debit systems to track lunch payments, so there is no visible way to tell if a student is drawing off money put into a lunch account by their parents or if their meal is subsidized by the federal government, The Chronicle reported.

"Before debit cards, some kids would have cash, others were on a check-off list. If you were in line, you would kind of know," Dan Gorman, director of food service at Montague Public Schools, told The Chronicle.

School districts encourage students to apply for free or reduced-price meals because various grants and supplemental government funding are based on those numbers, The Chronicle reported. North Muskegon Public Schools waives pay-to-play fees for student-athletes who are eligible for meal subsidies.

The Muskegon Chronicle, "Schools seeing rise in free and reduced-price lunches," Oct. 29, 2009

Michigan Education Digest, "Stimulus pays for lunch equipment," July 25, 2009