Fresh fruit — plums and pears — lay a short reach away, so Julie Kennedy wasn't about to let the girl and her cafeteria tray wander away without one.
Alerted to the offering, the girl happily added a plum to her meal and headed for a table.
It was another bit of nutrition success at Mary Giella Elementary, where Kennedy supervises the cafeteria and keeps an eye on what her charges pile — or don't pile — onto their trays.
The reason for her vigilance is partly because full, healthy meals lead to better performance in the classroom.
"If you have a hungry belly, you are not going to do well in class," Kennedy said.
A secondary reason comes into play, too, though.
Most of the roughly 600 children at Mary Giella Elementary — 73.4 percent — qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meal program.
Those children must take a full meal, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the school district to receive federal reimbursement for the meals.
More and more children across Pasco County qualify for the subsidized meals, a rising percentage driven by the slow pace of the economic recovery.
As of Aug. 30, the countywide percentage of students qualifying was 55.9 percent, up from 54.4 percent at this time last year. In the years prior to the recession, Pasco usually averaged a percentage in the mid-40s.
"A lot of parents are struggling to make ends meet," said Rick Kurtz, the school district's director of food and nutrition services.
This year, in an effort to cut down on paperwork and make the process more efficient, the school district encouraged parents to go online to fill out the subsidized-meal application.
The online effort speeds up the process significantly, Kurtz said. With paper applications, parents often submitted incomplete paperwork. The school district had to send the applications back so the parent could fill in the missing pieces.
The online process blocks an application that lacks required information, so a parent immediately knows to add what's missing.
Kurtz said the online applications usually are approved in less than 48 hours.
Pasco began using the online application process last year, but started promoting it heavily going into this school year.
The results: As of Aug. 30, 12,789 applications had been processed, with 11,388 of those submitted online. At the same time a year ago, 4,460 applications had been processed, all on paper.
The application can be accessed at www.pasco.k12.fl.us/nutrition/free_reduced.
Students who qualify for a reduced-price meal pay 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.
A full-priced breakfast is $1.25 at elementary schools and $1.40 at middle and high schools. Full-priced lunches cost $2 at elementary schools and $2.50 to $3 at middle and high schools.
Eligibility for free and reduced-price meals is determined by a mixture of household size and income. For example, a family of four qualifies for free meals if the family's annual income is $29,965 or less.
The same family can qualify for reduced-price meals with an annual income of up to $42,643.
The USDA recently changed the guidelines on what constitutes a full reimbursable meal, putting a greater emphasis on fruits and vegetables. That's one reason Mary Giella Elementary and other schools keep fresh fruit near the cash register, said Stephanie Packrall, nutrition coordinator for the school district.
"It also helps avoid backing up the line," she said.
If a student neglected to choose a fruit or vegetable, one is handy at checkout so the student doesn't have to get back in line.
Because the system is coded, cafeteria workers don't know who is or is not receiving subsidized meals, so they encourage all students to take a full meal.
Kurtz said schools throughout the county have done a good job promoting online applications and providing computer access to parents who need it.
Mary Giella Elementary set up computers for parents during meet-the-teacher day the week before school began, Assistant Principal Dawn Scilex said.
Kennedy also offers assistance to those who need it.
"I have had some parents say they can't do it on the computer," she said.
In some cases, the family has no computer. Some grandparents who are raising children aren't comfortable with the online process, Kennedy said.
Regardless of the reason, she invites them to come to the school, puts them on a computer and helps them out.
The online application can take as little as five minutes, Kennedy said.
"It's very easy," she said. "Very, very easy."