Why are more and more students eligible for School District 196's free and reduced lunch program?
The answer is simple, district officials say. It’s the economy.
In 1999-2000 school year, only 8.5 percent of District 196 students were eligible for the federal program, which is a form of economic assistance for qualifying low-income families in the district. Fast forward to the 2010-11 school year, and 20.7 percent of the district's 27,494 students were eligible for the program. Although that number dipped in the 2011-12 school year, it still remains at roughly 18 percent—much higher than pre-recession tallies.
"Given the economic times, I’m not at all surprised,” said District 196 Director of Elementary Education Julie Olson, who monitors the district’s free and reduced lunch programs on the elementary level. Olson noted that many in the district were recently laid off from what were once stable, middle- or high-level jobs.
Students in School District 196 typically pay between $2.10 or $2.25—depending on their grade level—for a single school lunch, according to Food and Nutrition Services Coordinator Wendy Knight. Students who are enrolled in the district’s reduced lunch program pay just 40 cents for a meal, while students who meet the federal guidelines for the free lunch program are not charged at all for their meals.
Families must apply by Oct. 1 of each school year for the program, which renews annually. To apply for free or reduced lunch, families must meet certain federal household size and yearly income guidelines. A family of four would have to have a household income of $29,055 or less to qualify for the free lunch program, according to federal criteria.
Because of the eligibility requirements, the program is a good economic indicator for the district. Even small changes in the local economy—a strike or layoffs at a local business—can be reflected by fluctuations in the program’s enrollment.
“A big proportion of [the growth in the program], was the fall of Northwest Airlines, just because the airport is close and there were lots of families affected by one or both of the families members losing their job or being transferred to another hub in the U.S.," said Knight. Other factors, including the impending in Eagan, have affected the program, Knight added.
Fewer District 196 students are eligible for free and reduced lunch when compared to the statewide average, according to Olson, but the growth in the number of eligible students in the district has outstripped the state since 2003. In the 2003-04 school year, 27.4 percent of students statewide were eligible for the program. That number grew to 36.6 percent in 2010-11.
District 196 isn't the only school district seeing double-digit growth in free and reduced lunch eligibility. Nearly half of School District 197 students are eligible for the program in the 2011-12 school year, up from 18.3 percent in 1999.
“It’s exploded," said District 197 Nutrition Director Jeff Wolfer. Wolfer says the recession and demographic changes account for the dramatic change. Three years ago, the district added free breakfast programs at the elementary and secondary levels during the summer.
The cost of free and reduced lunch programs is borne entirely covered by federal funding, which means that increases in the use of the program do not directly impact District 196's finances. But the district is affected in other ways, Olson and Knight said.
District officials have put more energy and resources into encouraging families to apply for the free and reduced lunch program, and send out notices in a variety of publications and online media, Olson and Knight said. The district also has a breakfast program that is well-attended by free and reduced lunch enrollees.
The number of homeless students district-wide has also increased from 127 students in 2009 to 163 in 2011, according to Greg Clausen, a federal and state program specialist with the district.
“We want people who qualify to make sure those kids get meals during the day," Olson said.
Percentage of Students Eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch*Year School District 196 Statewide 2003 8.3 27.4 2004 9.2 28.3 2005 10.6 29.5 2006 12 30.3 2007 12 30.9 2008 14.8 31.6 2009 17.1 32.7 2010 18.2 35.5 2011 20.7 36.6
*Information provided by School District 196.