If the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals is an indicator of poverty in 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 free meals. “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 the 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. Lunches cost $2 for elementary students and $2.60 at middle and high schools. The reduced price is 40 cents, and anyone who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals gets free breakfast.
In October, Washington raised the income limit for the program to 200 percent of the poverty level, which might have contributed to the increase in the number of families seeking help. 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 work to identify additional families in need and to let them know that even if they didn’t qualify before, they may now.
In Coeur d’Alene, school district officials estimated that 800-plus more students qualify for the nutrition program than qualified last year.
“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 in 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 work to get out information about the meal-program application process.
Applications are available in multiple languages and take about 10 days to process. Spokane is the only district in the state piloting an online application process that 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,” Wordell said.
The government reimburses schools only for the number of meals served. Much of the food is acquired through subsidized government programs, but some is purchased locally. The program also means jobs for cooks.
“It’s a great program for kids that can help stretch a family’s budget,” Wordell said.