The number of local students in need who are receiving free or low-cost meals from schools hasn’t gone up this year, and officials are hopful that is a sign families’ financial situations are starting to improve.
The percentages of Center Grove, Greenwood and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson students enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program stayed the same as they were last year. And the rates for the remaining school districts didn’t rise or fall more than 1 percent, according to numbers from all six public school districts.
That was a surprise for food service workers, who had seen the number of applications for the program meet or exceed the amount from last year.
What the steady rates mean is unclear. The number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch is one of several factors, such as foreclosure rates and unemployment numbers, that can be used to measure how well the economy is doing, Ball State assistant professor of marketing Susan Brudvig said.
The number of students receiving free and reduced-price meals has been consistently rising across the state for the past five years, and 46 percent of Indiana’s students got help paying for lunch during the 2010-11 school year, Brudvig said.
Johnson County’s rates haven’t matched the state’s, but last year 37 percent of more than 24,800 public school students were a part of the program. The number of students getting lunch for free or a reduced amount is a measure of the number of students living at or near the poverty line.
The fact that the number of students approved for the program was relatively unchanged might be a sign that the economy is continuing to improve. But that can’t be truly known until next year’s rates are reported, Brudvig said.
“If we have recovery, if things are getting back to where they should, we should see those numbers fall. It’s kind of a hesitant positive,” she said.
Families qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program if their income levels are within 130 percent to 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four that means their annual income is between $29,965 and $42,643.
Brudvig said Johnson County as well as the other counties surrounding Indianapolis typically have lower free and reduced-price lunch numbers compared with the rest of the state, largely because of better job prospects in Indianapolis.
While no community wants a third of local students living near poverty, the fact that more families aren’t asking or qualifying for help could be a sign of improvement. The rates should follow the unemployment and foreclosure rates, which are slowly improving, Brudvig said
“We would expect there to be slight improvement next year,” she said.