More students relying on free and reduced lunches

School lunch
Students at Battle Creek Elementary in St. Paul stand in line for lunch. The St. Paul school district has 73 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch, but anonymity is maintained through a punch code system the students use in the lunch line
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

More Minnesota families are feeling the pinch of a tough economy where it hurts more than many parents would like to admit -- their children's lunch money.

New data from the state education department shows statewide enrollment in Minnesota schools stayed mostly flat from last year to this year, but there was an 8.5 percent increase in the number of students on free and reduced lunch.

As a result, more than one in three students receives help from the federally supported program, the most widely-used measure of poverty in schools.

Officials say some of that increase is likely the result of schools doing a better job of signing up eligible students. But it's clear that the down economy is contributing to more poverty.

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The sharp increase doesn't surprise Mark Stevenson of Blaine. He's one of those parents who signed his children up for free and reduced lunch last year -- the first time he's had to do so.

"We were both there [at school], talking to teachers and my ex-wife said 'my daughters are eligible for free and reduced lunch, how do I get that paperwork?'" Stevenson recalled. "She was being very vocal about it and I was just standing there withering, saying 'oh my gosh, I feel really self-conscious here.'"

Graphic: Free and reduced lunch use
Pre-kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment has decreased slightly in Minnesota since the 2002-03 school year, while the number of students using free and reduced lunch programs has increased by 28 percent over the same period.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

Stevenson's divorce and loss of a second income forced him to seek assistance. It was especially humbling, considering both Stevenson and his ex-wife are teachers who have seen poverty in schools for years.

"I didn't think that kids who are in free and reduced lunch had parents who had an established home and professional credentials and made a combined income of six figures," he said. "How would anyone who came from that situation end up needing free and reduced lunch?"

But whether it's divorce, a lost job or some other reason, school officials across the state say they're hearing more stories of families in need.

Free and reduced lunches are federally subsidized to ensure all children get food, regardless of their ability to pay.

But free and reduced lunch is also the most widely-used measurement of poverty in a school. It's used to determine whether a school is meeting adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It also determines various funding levels. Schools with higher poverty receive extra funding to pay for extra services for low-income children.

The numbers in Minnesota are even more telling if you go back a few years. There are 10,000 fewer students in Minnesota schools than there were in 2002, yet there are 65,000 more students on free and reduced lunch.

The data also show that increased poverty is universal. Edina, widely considered one of the state's most affluent communities, has one of the lowest rates of poverty in Minnesota. Fewer than 8 percent of students in Edina are on free and reduced lunch. But even that rate is 20 percent higher than last year's.

Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson of Blaine signed his daughters up for free and reduced lunch last fall; it was the first time he ever needed to seek the assistance. In Minnesota, school enrollment stayed flat from last year to this year but there was an 8.5% increase in students on free and reduced lunch.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

One in five students at Cornelia Elementary in Edina is on free and reduced lunch. Principal Chris Holden says school leaders have to look for students who need help but might not want to ask for it. Students can get help paying for things like field trips, for example -- If they ask.

Schools today are better at keeping their status anonymous.

"When I grew up, you did know who was on [free and reduced lunch]," Holden said. "We had different colored lunch tickets when I was growing up, so you had the green ticket and the red ticket. Today you don't know."

Now, when students walk through lunch lines - they punch a number code into a computer as they exit the line. At a St. Paul school, a computer blurts out a 'thank you' with every code entered.

The only way anyone will know a student is on free and reduced lunch is if that student shares that information with others.

St. Paul has always been a high-poverty district. It has 911 more students on free and reduced lunch this year compared to last year. One factor is the large jump in homeless students in St. Paul in the past five years. More than 2,000 students in St. Paul are homeless. Five years ago, that number was about 700.

The tough economy has forced people to overcome their hesitancy to ask for help, said Matt Mohs, acting chief accountability officer for the St. Paul district.

"We're finding more families willing to say 'yeah I'm spending time with another family and we could use that support.' We're also recognizing that the families we work with are experiencing a lot more," he said. "The severity of what they're experiencing is much more significant than it has been. We're seeing the day in, day out effects of the downturn."

The new numbers also mean that 35 percent of Minnesota students receive free or reduced price lunch. That's a rate many officials don't expect to drop drastically in coming years.