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More students qualify for free lunch program

Students line up for lunch at Chautauqua, where a growing number qualify for the subsidized free lunch program. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Students line up for lunch at Chautauqua, where a growing number qualify for the subsidized free lunch program.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

The number of children eligible to receive free lunches at Vashon’s three public schools has doubled in the last three years, according to statistics compiled by the Vashon Island School District.

In September 2008, 142 students, or 9.6 percent of the district’s enrollment, qualified for the federally subsidized program. By this fall, the number had climbed to 281, or 18 percent of the student body.

The number of students receiving partially subsided lunches — called reduced-price lunches — has not climbed quite as rapidly on Vashon, though those numbers have also inched upwards from 71 students in 2008 to 78 in 2011.

When both categories are combined, Vashon’s free and reduced-price lunch program has grown from 14 percent of the student body in 2008 to 23 percent this fall. All told, enrollment in the two programs has jumped 40 percent — from 213 students in 2008 to 359 students in 2011.

The numbers on Vashon mirror a statewide trend that underscores the impact of Washington’s lingering recession. Statewide, according the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), enrollment for free and reduced-price lunches has gone from 400,760 students in 2008 to 452,076 students in 2010, an 11 percent increase. (OSPI does not have 2011 numbers.)

As on Vashon, the largest jump statewide has been in the number of students qualifying for the free-lunch program, where Washington’s enrollment has gone from 295,033 in 2008 to 373,049 in 2010, a 21 percent increase.

Vashon’s enrollment in the federal program is still quite low when compared to other districts. Forty-two percent of the students in the Seattle School District, for instance, receive free or reduced-price lunches. But the rate of increase appears to be greater on the Island. Seattle, for instance, saw its numbers climb 2 percent between 2008 and 2010. Bainbridge Island School District had a similar climb, with enrollment going from 5 percent of its student body in 2008 to 7 percent in 2010.

Those paying attention to Vashon’s economic situation say they don’t know why Vashon has seen a more rapid climb than other districts. At the same time, several said, they’re not at all surprised by the escalation in the use of the program, a decades-old safety net administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I’ve seen a steady increase in the number of families who qualify for free lunch,” said Sally Adam, the district’s family advocate. “I’m not at all surprised. So many people are out of work. This recession is not over by a long shot.”

Bob Hennessey, a member of Vashon’s school board, concurred.

“If anyone had any doubt, we have real poverty in this community,” he said. “We just don’t see it.”

Ken Maaz, the executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services, was also not surprised. Demands for the agency’s services are at an all-time high, he said, with more families seeking reduced fees for parenting classes and after-school care and more requests for grants to help cover the costs of ferry tickets, gasoline, utility bills and car repairs.

“We’re seeing drastic changes,” he said. “It’s not been just a gradual shift in people’s income. We’ve seen a lot of families where one or both parents have lost their job.”

The agency has had to dig into its reserves to cover the Island’s escalating need for the second year in a row, Maaz added. VYFS is now down from a three-month to a two-month operating reserve, lower than he likes.

At the same time, Maaz added, “We’ve done it because we don’t want to turn people away. This is not the time to be turning people away.”

The National School Lunch Program is one of the nation’s oldest safety-net programs, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946. According to the New York Times, demand for the program is growing nationwide, with a 17 percent increase in the number of students enrolled in the program between 2006-7 and this past academic year.

While most say the increase is due largely to the economy, some note that other factors could also be driving Vashon’s higher numbers. The school district’s lunch program underwent a wholesale change two years ago — and also increased slightly in price — when Superintendent Michael Soltman contracted with an off-Island chef who remade the program into one offering much healthier fare. As a result, Soltman said, he and others began peddling the school lunch program more aggressively — and with it, the fact that some families could qualify for the subsidized meal program.

What’s more, according to Donna Donnelly, who works for Soltman and is a bit of an evangelist for the subsidized program, there seems to be less stigma about receiving free and reduced-price lunches. “That’s my personal opinion,” she added. “I think there’s more talk about free and reduced-price lunches and about healthy food and the importance of eating breakfast and lunch.”

Income standards also changed in the state in 2008, when Washington — in an effort to take full advantage of the federally subsidized food stamps program — raised the income levels. Previously, only those at 130 percent of the poverty level — which is set very low — could enroll, according to John Camp, administrator for food assistance programs for the state Department of Social and Health Services. After 2008, the state raised the income limit, allowing those at 200 percent of the poverty guideline to receive food stamps.

Camp said that has brought many more residents into the food stamp program and by extension the subsidized lunch program, since recipients of food stamps are automatically enrolled in the school lunch programs. That alone, he said, doesn’t explain the upsurge in those receiving subsidized lunches, however. According to analyses by the U.S. Census Bureau, he said, “There are a lot more people in poverty than in previous years.”

Hennessey, meanwhile, said the increase in Vashon’s subsidized lunch program will only strengthen his resolve to push harder for scholarship programs that can offset the costs of various programs at the three public schools. Scholarships are needed to help cover the costs of Camp Waskowitz at Chautauqua Elementary School, for instance, and Exploratory Week at McMurray Middle School.

“We have to make sure we adequately fund scholarships,” he said.

“We have a lot of wealthy people on this Island,” he added. “And we have a lot of poor people.”

 

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