The number of Hawaii public school children eligible for free and reduced-cost lunch, a key indicator of poverty, has risen 20 percent — or by more than 13,500 children — since 2007.
Statewide, more than 80,300 kids qualify for the program, aimed at making sure students get at least one nutritious meal a day.
WHO QUALIFIES FOR A FREE LUNCH?
» Children from families earning up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for free school lunches. In Hawaii that income threshold is $32,968 a year for a family of four.
PRICE OF A MEAL
The cost of school meals will increase tomorrow, but low-income students aren’t affected by the changes. The last increase in school meal prices took effect Jan. 1, 2010.
» Regular: $1 (up 5 cents)
» Regular: $2.35 (up 15 cents)
Source: State Department of Education
This school year, students on free and reduced-cost lunch account for 47 percent of all public school children in the islands, up from 39 percent in the 2007-08 school year.
The increase, more evidence of how hard the economic downturn is hitting working families, has principals offering more after-school tutoring and beefing up learning "intervention" programs because of the strong link between poverty and lower student achievement.
The additional students also have boosted the number of schools eligible for the federal Title I program, which offers extra funds to schools where 35 percent or more of the student population is on free and reduced-cost lunch.
Over the past three years, the number of Title I schools in Hawaii has grown to 186 from 161.
"The economy is really bad," said Terry Proctor, principal at Wilcox Elementary on Kauai, which became eligible for Title I funds this school year for the first time in its history. "A lot of our parents are working two or three jobs."
Some 39 percent of students at the school qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch, up from 26 percent in the 2007-08 school year.
As more children have fallen into lower income brackets, Wilcox has moved to provide more support to kids and families. The school will hire several part-time teachers to provide more individualized instruction to struggling students, Proctor said, and plans to offer after-school tutoring.
Children in households at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for free lunches. Reduced-cost lunches help families earning from 131 percent to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. In Hawaii that means a family of four bringing in $32,968 a year or less would be eligible for the free lunch program. A family of four earning no more than $46,916 would qualify for reduced-cost lunches.
More students qualifying for the lunch program is "definitely one of the indicators of tough economic times," said Ivette Rodriguez Stern, program director of Hawaii Kids Count at the University of Hawaii Center on the Family. "The lower-income working families, they basically are slipping into the poverty ranks."
The rise in numbers locally mirrors a national trend, as families across the country see their incomes decline amid job losses or hour and wage cuts.
It’s tough to tell, though, how Hawaii’s overall increase compares with other states’ because the most recent national figures are for 2008. That year, about 43 percent of public school students nationally were eligible for free and reduced-cost lunch, compared with 39 percent in Hawaii, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.
In Hawaii, growth in the program is being seen in communities on every island.
Seventy percent of students at Kahaluu Elementary qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch, up from 58 percent in the 2007-08 school year.
At Kealakehe Elementary in Kailua-Kona, 62 percent of students are in the program, up from 47 percent three years ago.
And this year, more than half of the students at Haiku Elementary on Maui qualify, up from 30 percent in the 2007-08 school year.
"It kind of breaks my heart," said Robin Newhouse, school food service manager at Haiku Elementary, of the increase. For some students, she added, "This is pretty much where they get their meal."
Principals say the statistics tell only half the story: Families that earn just above the income needed to qualify for the programs are struggling, too, and schools are seeing more parents who are unable to afford full-price school lunches.
Several schools said they are increasingly having to call or send letters home because parents have failed to load money onto their children’s lunch "debit cards," used in the cafeteria to buy meals.
Some schools are also using donations or "rainy-day" pots to cover those debts.
The cost of school lunch increased to $2.20 in January 2010, and will go up again tomorrow to $2.35. (The price for a reduced-price lunch — 40 cents — won’t change.)
Board of Education members voted last year not to raise the price of school meals, saying any increase would hurt already-struggling families. But the Department of Education said later it had to raise the cost of lunch to comply with a law that requires prices be set at no less than half the cost of preparing the meals.
Proctor, of Wilcox Elementary, said he has seen an increase in lunch loans and debts in the tough economic times.
Debts for lunches last school year ran into "the hundreds," he said. Wilcox covered some of it with private donations.
At Haiku Elementary the front office redeems recyclable bottles to pay any unpaid lunch loans. The school of 447 students had a $100 shortfall last school year.
Salt Lake Elementary has also seen an increase in the number of students on free and reduced-cost lunch — and an increase in lunch loans.
Principal Duwayne Abe said the school is "trying to be as accommodating as we can" and will work with parents to make whatever payments for lunch that they’re able to.
"We’re not trying to make it more difficult for them," he said.
Abe added the school is working to offer more "targeted" learning interventions to help students whose families are falling into poverty.
As parents picked up their kids from the campus on a recent afternoon, several said they were trying to shave expenses wherever possible.
Julie Kawasaki has four children, ranging in age from 6 to 12 years old, all of whom are in the free and reduced-cost lunch program.
Kawasaki said the program, in which her children have been enrolled for several years, has helped the family, especially since the economic downturn.
"It’s hard," she said.
Sev Bulagay, who has two children at Salt Lake Elementary, said both he and his wife work for the state and have seen their pay shrink because of furloughs.
The family applied for the free and reduced-cost lunch program but found out they didn’t qualify because they earn too much.
Bulagay said to cut expenses, the family plans out shopping trips carefully and tries to stock up on lunch items so the kids can take a meal, rather than buying it.
He said other families he knows are also struggling to get by.
"Everybody says the same thing," he said. "We’re trying to make ends meet."