Worried that children eligible for free school lunches could go hungry if funding runs out before the school year ends, state leaders Friday called for an infusion of cash to keep stomachs full.

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell announced a bill seeking an additional $19.5 million for schools to help defray costs associated with serving 3.1 million needy students free or reduced-price breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks. The state already budgets $125 million for the program.

"During these uncertain economic times, families have taken to tightening their finances, and so we've seen a dramatic spike in the number of children who are receiving subsidized school meals," O'Connell said at a news conference at Corvallis Elementary School in San Leandro. "Absent additional state support, I'm convinced that we will run out of money."

California served more than 770 million meals to qualifying students in 2007-08 — a 4.5 percent increase — and ran out of money to reimburse districts in May. September and October saw a 12 percent increase in meal demand over the same months in 2007, according to Department of Education surveys. The state normally sees a 1 percent year-over-year increase, O'Connell said.

O'Connell warned officials in December that reimbursement money could run dry again this school year, and he called for a $31 million budget increase over three years to help districts.

The ailing economy has pushed thousands of California parents out of work and homes, forcing them to stretch what little money they have. That has led many to rely more heavily on schools to feed their children.

"Kids are coming to school, and they're hungry," said Sandee Larsen, director of child nutrition for the San Lorenzo Unified School District. "This may be the only chance they get to eat all day."

San Lorenzo has seen a 6 percent year-over-year increase in free meals served, Larsen said. Her district isn't alone: The Oakland, West Contra Costa and Mt. Diablo districts, among others, also are seeing more eligible kids in cafeteria lines.

Larsen said she and other district officials won't stop serving such students, but if the state funding runs out, they may be forced to cut such things as breakfast and after-school snack service, or resort to purchasing canned rather than fresh vegetables from local growers.

California reimburses school districts 22 cents per meal, with an additional 6 cents if the meals are free of trans fat and not fried. The federal government pitches in from $2.17 to $2.57. Nationwide, districts served approximately 5 billion meals to 31 million eligible students in 2008.

Children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals based on family income. Those whose parents receive food stamps or cash assistance, as well as homeless, runaway and migrant children, also qualify.

The program originated during the Great Depression, Torlakson said, stressing the importance of maintaining the service amid the current difficult economic times.

"Today, as more and more families face economic uncertainty and are forced to use this critical safety-net program, we can't stand by and allow the funding to run dry," Torlakson said.

Torlakson said he hopes the California Legislature will consider the bill as part of ongoing negotiations over the state budget. He is aware that asking for money during the budget crisis could be a tough sell, but he hopes state leaders and the public will rally around the issue.

"It's an urgent matter," Torlakson said. "I think we're going to need intense public support for this."

Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or at kwetzel@bayareanewsgroup.com.