Between 2008 and 2010, an alarming number of public school children in California became newly eligible for free and reduced-cost meal programs in nearly every county of the state, according to recently released data.
The new findings, published by kidsdata.org, show that at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, more than 3.4 million children attending K-12 public schools in California were eligible for Free or Reduced Price (FRP) meal programs, representing a 5 percent statewide increase in eligibility, up from 51 to 56 percent.
“When you look at the percentage growth, it may not seem like that much,” notes Andy Krackov, manager of kidsdata.org, a project of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. “But when you look at the numbers, we’re talking about nearly 300,000 kids. So to give it perspective, it’s roughly about the size of the entire child population of a major city like San Diego.”
Because student eligibility for FRP meal programs is determined by family income, the data is widely considered a proxy measure for the number of children living in poverty.
In order to qualify for a reduced-price meal at school, a student’s annual family income must be below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which as of 2010 was $40,793 for a family of four. To qualify for a free meal at school, family income must fall below 130 percent, or a mere $28,665 per year for a family of four.
Perhaps most frightening is the percentage of students in California who meet the latter requirement. Of the 56 percent who are eligible for FRP meal programs in the state, the vast majority of those – 47 percent of all California public school children – qualify for free meals, versus 9 percent who are eligible for reduced-price meals.
Furthermore, although all but a handful of California’s 58 counties experienced increases in student eligibility for meal programs, 60 percent of all the eligible students are concentrated in just 21 counties. These are located primarily in the Central Valley, the far north and heavily populated Los Angeles County.
The California counties topping the kidsdata.org list are Merced (75.7 percent), Tulare (74.8 percent), Imperial (72.6 percent), Madera (72.5 percent), Fresno (68.6 percent) and Kern (68.1 percent).
Those numbers are broken down even further by kidsdata.org to reveal huge discrepancies between school districts within the same county. For example, while Kern County in the Central Valley has a student eligibility of 58 percent, in the elementary school district of Lamont – an unincorporated community in south Kern that is primarily home to migrant farm workers – the number jumps to a staggering 96 percent.
In fact, the eligibility numbers are so high in Lamont, that rather than try to determine who is eligible and who isn’t, the district simply offers free breakfast and lunch to every student in the school, according to Yolanda Ramirez, the district’s nurse and nutrition programmer.
Ramirez says the increase in meal program eligibility is directly related to the financial impact being absorbed by immigrant families who rely on the agriculture industry for their livelihood.
“Around 2008 we were trying hard to come up with more resources for families who couldn’t afford to pay the rent or buy food,” says Ramirez. “My take is that the agricultural companies are downsizing, and it took a lot of people out of the fields. It’s happening everywhere, but it’s affecting us more here.”
In Lamont, says Ramirez, the extent of child poverty that the kidsdata.org report suggests is especially insidious, because it is not always apparent on the surface to teachers in the classroom.
“If we only focus on the students when they are in school, you don’t see [the poverty],” says Ramirez. “You see it more when you follow up with a home visit and you find out that the conditions they are living in are appalling. It breaks your heart. [Families] ask us if they can get help with food; they get their power turned off; they don’t have money for rent. So we see that these families are in crisis.”
According to Krackov, the kidsdata.org numbers should also be viewed through a lens that accounts for differences in the cost-of-living between states. Doing so would suggest that lower eligibility numbers might not correlate to less financial strain in certain parts of the state.
“There’s bound to be higher eligibility in a place like Fresno, because the cost of living is so much less. This is a federal program so (the income requirement) is still $43,000, regardless of where you are,” he says. “But imagine a family of four in the Bay Area getting by with that?”
Also at issue is student access to the FRP meal programs themselves, which act as a safety net for children who might otherwise not have access to healthy foods. Because the kidsdata.org report is a measure of eligibility, not enrollment, no assumptions can be drawn from the data about participation rates in such programs.
In fact, according to Tia Shimada, a nutrition policy advocate at Breakfast First, an advocacy project that seeks to maximize student participation in school meal programs, huge gaps exist between the number of students who qualify for and actually take advantage of federally-funded meal programs.
The problem, says Shimada, is not that schools aren’t offering the programs, but that they are not structuring them in the right way.
“The majority of schools in California are offering early morning meals in the cafeteria,” says Shimada. “What happens with that model is, if kids don’t arrive early because of the bus schedule or some other reason, they don’t have that opportunity to eat.”
According to Shimada, 70 percent of all eligible students fail to take advantage of school breakfast programs, compared to 30 percent who do participate in lunch programs. That being the case, she says, addressing the school breakfast issue would result in huge gains in overall meal program participation.
Furthermore, she says, because FRP meal programs are tied to federal dollars, California schools could gain much needed dollars by implementing new breakfast policies.
“If we could have school breakfast participation match lunch participation, our schools would draw down about $350 million additional federal dollars. So there is funding gap, in addition to a participation gap.”