Student reliance on free/reduced lunch rises

More of Minnesota's school-aged children are living in or near poverty, according to new data from the Minnesota Department of Education.

The data show there's been a 3 percent jump in the number of kids on free and reduced lunch over last year -- and a 12 percent jump over two years ago. Free and reduced lunch is the most widely-used statistic to determine poverty in schools.

In all, 306,000 students are on the federally supported program. That accounts for 36.6% of the state's entire student population.

Mark Bezek, superintendent of Elk River Area School District, said when families are struggling, things are harder at school. His district has more than 1,000 students on free and reduced lunch than it did two years ago; a 50% jump.

"Kids come to school with enough baggage the way it is. This is one more thing that is added to them. We see a higher need for counselors, and teacher time with kids," he said. "It's all hand in hand when you have times like this here."

Bezek says the mortgage crisis hit Elk River particularly hard, and that pushed up the number of families that are struggling.

Bezek also said there are more eligible students who aren't yet on the program.

"You know there are families in need out there," he said. "But for whatever reason, pride or just not paying attention to filling [the application] out, for whatever reason, we know there are families out there who could benefit from these programs if they would sign up."

The Elk River school district has encouraged more eligible families to enroll in free and reduced lunch. Nearly a quarter of its students are now on the program.

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