News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 12, 2014

Nearly half of Indiana students get meal aid

TERRE HAUTE — Nearly 50 percent of Indiana public school students receive free or reduced-cost meals through the federal school-lunch program.

That’s up from 34.7 percent in 2004, according to the Indiana Youth Institute.

In the Vigo County School Corp., 56.4 percent of students are on free/reduced-cost lunches; two schools have 90 percent or more on free/reduced lunches; and another six schools have a rate of 80 percent or more.

The increasing rate statewide “closely mirrors the increase in child poverty rates,” said Bill Stanczykiewicz, IYI chief executive officer.

One quarter of Indiana kids now live in poverty, he said, a trend that goes back to 2000, not the Great Recession of 2008-09, which “poured fuel on a fire that was already burning.”

Part of that trend is the result of a changing economy and manufacturing sector, he said. There are jobs in manufacturing, “but we can make more things with fewer people because of technology.”

The manufacturing jobs that exist pay well, above the state median, “but there are fewer of them because of technology,” he said.

The family structure also is a major factor, he said, with more than 40 percent of children born into single-parent homes

“We’re not trying to stigmatize mom or the kids, we’re just saying that in the context of poverty, you’re five to six times more likely to be living in poverty” in a single-parent home, Stanczykiewicz said.

A child who is hungry faces greater challenges learning at school. Also, a child not receiving proper nutrition is more likely to get sick and miss school, he said.

“Hunger is the first domino that hits all the rest. Hunger creates a sense of hopelessness that can kill aspiration and kill a child’s effort. It really is,” said Stanczykiewicz, interviewed Tuesday during a visit to Terre Haute.

Often, for children in poverty, their school lunch on Friday is their last good meal until Monday.

The Vigo County School Corp. offers breakfast and lunch programs at all of its schools, said Superintendent Dan Tanoos.

“There is a misunderstanding that only certain schools have students on free and reduced lunch,” he said. “All schools have pockets of poverty.”

The district participates in summer feeding programs, and it also has a districtwide weekend backpack program that has garnered much community support. So far this school year, the district has collected $55,699 in support of the backpack program. It paid out $37,629 as of Feb. 28, officials said.

City and county fire stations also have backpacks available to students who may run out of food when they are out of school during inclement weather, as has occurred several times this winter.

There is a direct relationship, Tanoos said, between kids who are in poverty and low performance in schools for reasons that can include hunger, or because parents must work two jobs to make ends meet and so can’t spend as much time working with their children.

At the same time, “We can’t use that as an excuse to not challenge our kids each day to meet his or her potential,” he said.

Last year, the Legislature changed the way it determines levels of poverty-based funding for school districts.

It has used the federal school lunch program, but in the future, it will use the state’s textbook assistance program to calculate how much more money the state gives schools to help educate children most at risk for failure. The textbook program provides free schoolbooks to low-income children.

  Some state legislators suspect fraud in the federal school lunch program and say it has no accountability.

  Stanczykiewicz acknowledged some fraud may exist, just as it does in any organization or field. But at the same time, not all eligible students sign up, especially older students, who may be too embarrassed to participate.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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