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Monday, October 17, 2011

In Florida the amount of kids on free and reduced lunch soar

From the Orlando Sentinel by Dave Weber

The number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches in Central Florida public schools is skyrocketing as the state stumbles through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

On any weekday, as many as 222,000 students in the five-county region may be standing in line at school to receive lunch for free or a few cents because their families are struggling.

Sanford In Osceola County a staggering 71 percent of students are on the lunch list, up from 63 percent four years ago.

"A lot of our people in Osceola have lost their jobs, or their pay is so low that they qualify for the program," said Kat Gordon, an Osceola teacher who also serves on the Orange County School Board.

Across Central Florida the number of students in the federally funded lunch program is up substantially.

Schools in Orange, Osceola, Lake — and even Seminole County, with its reputation for affluence — have added thousands of students to their free-lunch rolls.

"Lake Brantley High — the rich kids' school? It just isn't so," said Principal Mary Williams.

One out of every three students at Seminole's Brantley is getting lunch through the meals program this year, up half again from before the recession.

"For some, it may be their only meal of the day," Williams said.

Linda Daniels, director of food services for Seminole schools, said her recent review of free and reduced-price meals revealed something telling about Lake Mary, another Seminole community perceived by many to be above the economic fray.

"This year for the first time we have both Greenwood Lakes Middle School and Lake Mary Elementary over 50 percent," Daniels said.

Eligibility is based on a sliding scale of income set by the federal government, with a family of three — mom and two kids, for example — qualifying if it earns $24,089 or less annually. With an income up to $41,348, students in that family could get lunch for 40 cents, although the majority of those in the program qualify for free meals. Many also qualify for free breakfasts.

Seminole elementary schools such as Wicklow and Idyllwilde in Sanford, which traditionally have had high numbers of low-income students, have seen even more signing up for lunch. Wicklow is at 77 percent this year, and Idyllwilde is at 69 percent.

"It helps the entire child," said James Russo, principal of Wicklow. "If kids aren't getting their nutrition needs met, they are not going to be able to function in the classroom."

The meals program is helping Davinia Jones' family survive horrible times. Her son, Jaden Hughes, a third-grader at Idyllwilde, is getting free lunch.

"I am grateful for this," Jones said. "I know my son is being fed when he goes to school. This is a big help."

The family is living in a motel on U.S. Highway 17-92 near Airport Boulevard after Jones, 28, lost her job at a call center last month and could not afford to keep their apartment.

Now she, her husband, Sedrick, who has been able to find only occasional part-time work, and their three children are crowded into the motel room. The school system's Families in Transition program for the homeless temporarily is picking up rent.

Orange County schools, with their urban population, have struggled for years with high poverty. This year 24 schools are giving free lunch to all under a provision of the federally subsidized meals program, because 95 percent or more of students meet income guidelines.

That's up from seven such schools three years ago. Orange Center, Ivey Lane, Grand Avenue, Mollie Ray and Wheatley are among those on the list.

Other schools have seen substantial increases in meal sign-ups as well. At Millennia Elementary, the number of students qualifying for the free-lunch program went from 75 percent in 2007 to 83 percent his year.

"We have had a significant increase of families considered homeless, families financially stressed, families taking advantage of our food pantry in the school," said Anne Lynaugh, Millennia principal.

Lora Gilbert, in charge of food services for Orange schools, said that in addition to more kids now getting free or low-priced lunches, they are hungrier. Though a few years ago the average student took three items on a lunch tray, now it is four or five, Gilbert said.

Warren Hougland, director of community services for the Osceola Council on Aging, said he is not surprised to learn that seven out 10 students in his county need the government-subsidized meals.

Hungry people routinely show up at his office, which has run out of food and had to shut down its pantry until it can be replenished, he said. or 407-883-7885,0,1262472.story

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