The percentage of students on free or reduced lunches has skyrocketed over the past decade and all indications say it will continue to rise.
The percentage of students on free or reduced lunches has skyrocketed over the past decade and all indications say it will continue to rise.
July 15, 2013

Just over half of public school students in Crawford County are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

That means more than half of the families with students enrolled in public school have annual salaries of less than $43,568 - for a family of four.

Carroll County's numbers are less extreme, with just 34.6 percent of students eligible - which is still over a third of enrollment. And the number may be higher, officials say.

In 2000, Carroll County was at 25.5 percent, and Carroll Community School District superintendent Rob Cordes said the numbers have steadily risen over the years. Although Carroll's average median household income has increased in the past decade, each year the income requirements for the program also creep upward and have outpaced gains of household income - rising around $5,000 since 2006 - partly due to the tough economic times of the past decade.

The total number of students in the United States who received government-subsidized school lunches increased 17 percent between the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

"It's really the only instance in education where we collect data concerning people's income," said Gary Bengtson, CCSD director of business affairs. "It enables those that fall underneath the guidelines to either get the meals for free or at a reduced rate."

Free or reduced-price lunches, part of the National School Lunch program, began in 1946 as part of the National School Lunch Act.

For a family of five, the annual salary to qualify for free lunches is anything under $35,113 - which is less than $10,000 above the poverty line - in comparison to the $25,360 salary cap in 1999. As that number rises more people fall under the umbrella of free or reduced-price lunches.

"I think it's a really good program and the schools should have it, because not all parents are able to provide good meals for their kids," said Allison Loneman, a 19-year-old Carroll High graduate whose single mom had three children use free or reduced-price lunches. "This could be the one good meal that some kids could get and the only healthy meal that they have."

Hungry students have lower test scores and are more likely to repeat a grade and receive special-education help than those who are not chronically hungry, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students who are hungry are also more often absent or tardy.

According to Iowa Kids Count, nearly every county in Iowa has 25 percent or more of their schools' populations eligible for government-subsidized lunches.

Despite this, losing two spots from the previous year, Iowa was ranked as the eighth-best state in child well-being. New Mexico ranks as the worst.

This ranking takes many factors into account, among them instances of child abuse and neglect, infant mortality, unemployment and free or reduced-price lunch eligibility.

"It's kind of embarrassing," Loneman said. "I never told anybody that I had it. I didn't want it to reflect badly on my mom or my whole family."

Loneman's mother held several jobs throughout Allison's schooling, among them Burger King and Walmart. She now works as a teacher's assistant at Fairview Elementary School.

At 14, Loneman got her first job. At one point in high school Loneman, was working two part-time jobs to help keep her family afloat, before it began affecting her grades, she said. Loneman now works at Subway restaurant and is continuing her education.

In the past kids used colored punch cards, with different colors showing who paid a different amount for their lunches. Today most schools, including Carroll schools, use a computerized system with PIN numbers. A greater emphasis is placed on anonymity today than was in the past, so students like Loneman don't have to deal with the social stigma of free lunches.

"It's never the child's fault," Loneman said.