In 2001, the principal of Three Oaks School in Cary District 26 could have counted the number of pupils eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches on both hands and still have fingers left over.
The seven eligible students back then represented just less than 1 percent of the school’s enrollment. Over the past 13 years, the percentage has skyrocketed to just under half – 244 of the school’s 526 children now are eligible under federal guidelines.
It’s a pattern that has repeated itself at every school in McHenry County, according to school lunch data obtained by the Northwest Herald. While student populations for the most part have stayed the same or decreased, the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches has, on average, tripled since 2000.
School officials who administer the federal lunch program say the main reason by far is that more families need help because of years of bad economic times.
“I would say the majority [cause] would be the economy,” said Nancy Reczek, assistant superintendent for early learning and elementary education at District 200 in Woodstock. “It’s making it more difficult for families, absolutely.”
Under the National School Lunch Program, children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Children from families between 130 percent and 185 percent are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which children can be charged a maximum of 40 cents. Those benchmarks, reviewed each year, now stand at $30,615 and $43,568, respectively.
The program, which cost $6.1 billion to administer in 2000, cost $11.6 billion in 2012, according to federal data. It served free and reduced-price lunches last year to 31 million schoolchildren in more than 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools.
Minor changes in qualifications aside, growing need is the main driver, and McHenry County schools are a mircocosm of the increasing need nationwide.
In Alden-Hebron District 19, the percentage of eligible elementary school children has more than tripled, from 11.1 percent to 39 percent now. The number of eligible students at Alden-Hebron High School has leaped from 7 percent to 30 percent.
Since 2001, the number of pupils who qualify for subsidized lunches at Indian Prairie Elementary School in Crystal Lake District 47 has surged from just less than 2 percent in 2001 to almost one in four today. More than one student in three qualifies at Lake in the Hills Elementary in District 300, and Marengo High School. In 2001, only 6 percent and 5 percent qualified.
Schools that had high percentages a decade ago are even higher today.
One student in four was eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch in 2001 at Parkview Elementary School in Carpentersville. That number has climbed at the D-300 school to more than 80 percent today. At neighboring Perry Elementary School, 93 percent of students are eligible today, compared to two-thirds a decade ago.
Of schools in McHenry County proper, the highest percentages for elementary, middle and high schools can be found in District 50 in Harvard. An average of 66 percent of students at its five schools qualify, up from 28 percent in 2001.
Like her District 200 counterpart, District 50 business manager Mary Taylor blames the economy on the rise in eligibility, because requests for other assistance have increased as well.
“We’re seeing a lot more applying for tuition waivers, and we’ve talked to quite a few people where one of the household members have lost their job,” Taylor said.
But the district this year has started involvement in a program that Taylor says shows the importance of making sure students get meals.
District 50’s three elementary schools this year are able to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students, regardless of ability to pay, through a federal program called the Community Eligibility Option. To qualify for the program, administered through the states, more than 40 percent of students at a school have to be getting some sort of government assistance.
Taylor said there are far fewer trips to the nurse, as well as fewer trips to the principal’s office for bad behavior, since the program began.
“Teachers love it, the administrators are loving it also and the kids are getting good meals,” Taylor said.