School lunches come at a cost to kids, county

COLUMBIA CITY — The number of students across the state using the free and reduced-price lunch program is on the rise, and area schools are no exception.Whitley CountyMore than 31 percent of Whitley County students needed help getting a meal in 2013, down from 32 percent in 2012. Even though Whitley County had a lower percentage of students in the program compared to other Indiana Counties, the percentage is drastically on the rise compared to 2009 when the percentage was less than 25 percent. The state increases aren’t limited to 2013. Over the last five years, enrollment in the free and reduced-price lunch program has steadily increased. Since 2009, the number rose 12 percent in Brown and Lawrence counties, 10 percent in Morgan, 8 percent in Greene, and 5 percent in Monroe County. Statewide, almost half, 49 percent, of young Hoosiers needed financial assistance before they could grab a lunch tray in 2013, an increase of 7 percent from 2009.The reasonWhat caused the higher need?A continued economic downturn and high unemployment haven’t allowed people to scrape by as they once could, and so they lean on the resources available. According to the most recent information at Kids Count Data Center, 13.7 percent of Whitley County children were in poverty in 2013; up from 11 percent in 2009.According to Glenn Augustine, the Indiana Youth Institute vice president of advancement, “its a reflection of the recession.” Augustine said historically, poverty is one of the last measures to improve after an economic downturn, and “it’s just going to take some time for those numbers to rebound.” He points out that usage numbers are likely not a true reflection of the number of hungry students, because many who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch have not enrolled.”There are things we (parents) are willing to go without, but not our kids,” said Vicki Pierce, Community Kitchen of Monroe County executive director. She said cuts in food stamps aren’t helping, either. “A family of four is getting $36 less in food stamps.”Another reason the free and reduced-price enrollment numbers may be higher is because of outreach. Just as more children have become eligible for the program because their parents have become unemployed, awareness of the programs has increased.The ease of getting information to families is part of what Vickie Coffey, R-BB nutrition services/healthy schools director, thinks has caused some of the increased usage in Ellettsville. R-BB parents can sign up online at the start of the year, and through the state’s direct certification download system, those who qualify for food stamps are automatically enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program.