Pa. free lunches on the rise in poor economy

Enrollment down, but economy, outreach bring more subsidized meals

In the Gateway School District, it's no secret that poverty is on the increase.

From October 2005 to October 2013, state statistics show enrollment dropped by 663, but the number of students qualifying for free lunches rose by 418 and the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches rose from 25.9 to 41.2.

Gateway superintendent Nina Zetty isn't sure what is causing the increase, though she suspects the region's economy is to blame.

What she is sure about is that hungry children can't learn.

As a result, the district has started a fund to cover the cost of reduced-price lunches for students who don't qualify for free lunches, has established "sharing tables" in cafeterias where students can leave food items they don't plan to eat for others, and is in the process of setting up a weekend backpack program to send food home to families who indicate a need.

"Our ultimate goal is to help improve student achievement. But we can't do that if students don't have their basic needs met," Ms. Zetty said.

PG graphic: Low-income growth
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Gateway's numbers reflect a trend found statewide and in the Allegheny County suburbs: More students are qualifying for subsidized lunches even though enrollment is declining.

From 2005 to 2013 in the Allegheny County suburbs, districts with increases of 10 percentage points or more in the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, in addition to Gateway, include Allegheny Valley, Brentwood, Carlynton, East Allegheny, Elizabeth Forward, Highlands, Keystone Oaks, Montour, Northgate, Penn Hills, Shaler Area, South Allegheny, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, West Mifflin Area and Woodland Hills.

Though not as hefty, even the more affluent districts had noticeable increases, among them Fox Chapel Area, 6.8 percentage points; Hampton, 5 percentage points; Bethel Park, 6 percentage points; Mt. Lebanon, 4.4 percentage points; and Quaker Valley, 5.5 percentage points.

Better outreach and improved awareness at the district level is one factor cited by educators for the increases. Numbers may also have been nudged up by the fact that families that qualify for certain state assistance programs are now automatically registered for free lunches for their children.

But most say the major factor is the economy. With free lunch numbers growing and reduced-price lunch figures declining, school officials also speculate that their families are moving down the economic scale into the free-lunch category.

One of the biggest jumps in the numbers occurred between October 2007 and October 2009 -- a period which coincides with the collapse of the banking industry and economic woes that followed.

After that, the numbers increase in smaller increments until they appear to level off somewhat between 2012 and 2013.

"The department saw the numbers change when the economy changed several years ago," said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education. "The income qualifications have been the same. There have been some enhancements to better capture students that meet income criteria."

The numbers are stark.

Statewide from 2005 to 2013, K-12 public school enrollment dropped by 73,249 to 1.78 million students, but the number of students qualifying for free lunches increased by 149,195 to a total of 666,393.

While the number of students receiving reduced-price lunches decreased by 29,534 to 100,199 over that time, that still left 119,652 more children receiving free or reduced-price lunch in 2013 than in 2005.

The trends from 2005 to 2013 also hold across Allegheny County, where enrollment fell by 7,057 to 149,304, but the number of students eating free lunches rose by 5,880 to a high of 50,480 in October 2012, dropping slightly to 49,570 in October 2013. The number of students in the county receiving reduced-price lunches fell by 2,662 to 6,778 in 2013.

Nationally from fiscal year 2005 to 2013, the number of students enrolled in the school lunch program rose by approximately 2 million, from 49.6 million to 51.6 million, while the number of students eating free lunches rose by 5.3 million, from 18.4 million to 23.7 million. The number receiving reduced-price lunches fell by approximately 200,000 from 4 million to 3.8 million.

Statewide, the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches rose from 34.8 to 42.9 from 2005 to 2013.

In Allegheny County, the percentage increased from 33.9 to a high of 38.3 in 2012 and decreased to 37.7 in 2013.

Nationally, the percentage of students approved for free and reduced-price lunches rose from 45.3 to 53.2 over those years.

What the countywide numbers in Allegheny County don't show is that the numbers in Pittsburgh Public Schools are holding fairly steady, with suburban districts seeing more increases, and more significant increases, in the number of subsidized lunches they serve.

Curtistine Walker, Pittsburgh's director of food service, said 73.45 percent of students received free and reduced-price lunches as of October 2013. That's 18,362 students qualifying for free lunches and 844 for reduced-price meals out of total enrollment of 26,147 in pre-K through grade 12 last fall, according to her records.

Those numbers compare with 2008 statistics kept by the district that show 71.57 percent of the 27,957 students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

"Even with our fluctuation in enrollment, our percentages hold pretty steady," Ms. Walker said.

In the Allegheny Valley district, the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches increased from 29.9 percent to 46.5 from 2005 to 2013, an increase that is "generally attributed to the economic health of the area," according to spokeswoman Janice Zastawniak.

Likewise in West Mifflin Area, the increase from 29.9 to 50.8 percent of students receiving subsidized lunches is directly related to the economy, said superintendent Dan Castagna. "Our 2013-14 local tax revenue is lower than it was in the 2005-06 school year," he said.

McKeesport Area food service director Tammi Davis said part of her district's increase from 64.8 percent of students receiving subsidized lunches to 74.1 percent is from new families moving to the district.

But she said the majority of the increase is among families already in the district who are experiencing tough times. "It's just the general economics of today," Ms. Davis said.

Changing demographics are cited as a factor in the increase of students qualifying for free lunches in Elizabeth Forward. The percentage of free and reduced-price lunch students there has risen from 24.4 to 34.7 in the eight-year window kept by the state.

"There are more people who are in the eligible range here even though the school population is decreasing," said Margaret Boucher, director of food service at Elizabeth Forward. "I think people who would not have thought about applying for it before are now applying. I would tend to lean toward the economy as the cause."

Ms. Boucher said local food banks have indicated they are serving an increased number of people. "That's an indicator that more people are taking advantage of help," she said.

In Gateway, Ms. Zetty is also seeing changing demographics. "We are seeing a lot of students coming and going and we are getting a lot of kids from the city," Ms. Zetty said. "We have a lot of multiple-family residences where two or more families are living in the same household. Some are considered homeless, some are not."

Gateway had 34 homeless students as of January.

Brentwood superintendent Ronald Dufalla said his district's enrollment has become more transient in recent years, which could be contributing to the increase from 29 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunches to 46.2 percent. Mr. Dufalla also said he believes as the economy continues to stagnate, families are less reluctant to seek help. In addition, he said, school staff has been trained to reach out to families whose children have trouble paying for lunch.

Elizabeth Forward superintendent Bart Rocco said he is concerned about the effects of nutrition on school achievement and said it is important for districts to make sure students who qualify for subsidized lunches get them. "The more kids out there who don't have resources, the more performance will drop," he said.

Dave Pisarchik, a district manager for Metz Culinary Management, which handles food service for 40 to 50 school districts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said he has seen the percentages of free and reduced-price lunches increase across the board.

"I have some school districts that have jumped from 20 to 40 percent, and I have some enrollments that have dropped 20 percent," Mr. Pisarchik said. "It's amazing to see how you are losing students on one end and then on the other end having more and more parents who are having trouble making ends meet."

Mary Niederberger:; 412-263-1590.

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