If the number of students qualifying for free- or reduced-price meals is an indicator of poverty within local school districts, then Eastern Washington and North Idaho are getting poorer.
School districts from both regions report a rise in the number of families seeking assistance from the federal meals program, likely due to the worsening national economy.
“Breakfast and lunch is critical to our families,” said Steve Barnes, the principal at Holmes Elementary School in West Central Spokane, where more than 90 percent of children qualify for a free meal. “A lot of our kids come to school hungry.”
Last year, Spokane Public Schools processed 3,500 new applications for free- and reduced-price meals by the third week in September. During that same period this year, district officials had received 5,800 applications. More than half of Spokane students qualify for free or discounted meals.
As the number of qualifying students increases, states may see more schools labeled Title I – or those with high poverty, often measured by the percentage of students taking free meals.
And as the jobless rate rises, many families may need help paying for daily meals. Lunch prices are $2 for elementary students and $2.60 at middle and high schools. Reduced-price lunch is 40 cents, and anyone who qualifies for free- or reduced-price meals gets free breakfast.
The increase in families looking for a little help in Washington schools may be due in part to the state changing income limits in October for the basic food allowance to up to 200 percent of the poverty level. For a family of four, annual income must be $39,220 or less.
“There are still a good number of families we know that are either trying to push by or are too proud,” said Doug Wordell, director of nutrition services for Spokane schools. “There are a lot of barriers, pride issues, economic and social pressures that are keeping families from participating.”
Like many districts, Spokane will be working to identify additional families in need, to let them know if they didn’t qualify before, they may now.
In Coeur d’Alene, school district officials estimated an increase of more than 800 students qualifying for the nutrition program this year over last.
“Anybody can apply anytime during the school year,” said Ed Ducar, director of nutrition for Coeur d’Alene schools. “I’ve also sent some stuff out to the schools just trying to let families know that if they have had a job loss or a reduction in pay they can apply for meals.”
The Central Valley School District saw the percentage of students qualifying for free- and reduced-price meals drop slightly this year, which does not correlate with other indicators of poverty within the district, officials said.
The number of homeless students is on the rise, with 292 students classified as homeless last month, officials said.
“We know that circumstances are changing for our families, said Melanie Rose, CV spokeswoman. The district will be working to get out information about the application process for the meals.
Applications are available in multiple languages, and generally take about 10 days to process. Spokane is the only district in the state piloting an online application process this year, which cuts application time down to two days, Wordell said. Once a family qualifies, it applies to the entire school year, even as situations change.
“It brings other federal dollars so there’s other school support dollars which bring counselors and teachers in addition to your child getting a meal,” said Wordell.
The government reimburses schools only for the number of meals served, and some of the money will be put back into local economy. Much of the food is acquired through subsidized government programs, but some is purchased locally, not to mention jobs for cooks and food preparation created by the meals served in schools.
“It’s a great program for kids that can help stretch a family’s budget,” Wordell said.