More Duluth families use lunch program as economy takes bite from budgetsAmy Brooks is among the more than 44 percent of Duluth school district families that take part in the federal and state-run free and reduced-price lunch program, a number that has grown steadily from 36 percent five years ago.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Amy Brooks is a single parent of two kids in Duluth with annual wages and child support that total about $14,000.
She is a full-time college student and has part-time work study and serving jobs. She pays $600 in rent plus heat and other utilities each month, and she has a car payment. Her family buys used clothing and has no Internet or cable television.
“We follow a really strict budget,” said the 33-year-old. “It’s a constant struggle.”
Brooks is among the more than 44 percent of Duluth school district families that take part in the federal and state-run free and reduced-price lunch program, a number that has grown steadily from 36 percent five years ago. She has a 4-year-old in preschool and a 7-year-old at Nettleton Elementary, for whom she’ll save $450 this year in lunch and milk money.
The number of families taking advantage of the subsidized lunch program is rising, experts say, because of the nationwide loss of middle-class jobs.
Signs of pinched family budgets are seen throughout the schools, Duluth educators say — from kids who can’t afford letter jackets and formal dances to more kids working and more families searching out scholarships.
The government and manufacturing jobs that put people “solidly in the middle class” are disappearing, said Drew Digby, the northeast regional labor market analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
In Duluth, about 19 percent of government jobs and more than 16 percent of manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2001, according to government numbers. “That decline isn’t as bad as a lot of places,” Digby said, “but those are really good, middle-class jobs that we’ve lost.”
There has been major growth in health care and customer service jobs, but those aren’t all well-paying, he said. There has also been growth in higher education and engineering fields, which are upper-middle-class jobs, Digby said.
‘Surprised they qualify’
To qualify for the lunch program, a household of four can make no more than $41,348; they also qualify if they participate in programs such as the Minnesota Family Investment Program.
The number keeps growing, said Pam Bowe, child nutrition supervisor for the Duluth school district, because of the economy and because of efforts to notify families of its existence.
“Some parents I get calls from are surprised that they qualify,” she said. “They’ve never needed us in the past.”
Families can apply throughout the year. This year, Bowe said, she got calls for the first time from parents asking to be put on the mailing list to be sure they received the application.
“It helps families reduce the grocery bill; packing a lunch every day for several children is not an easy or cheap process,” she said. “If a family is struggling with bills or someone is out of work and you don’t have a lot of extra income to spend on fruits and vegetables, we can offer new items students might not have been exposed to.”
Based on guidelines, families that qualify for reduced-price lunches of 40 cents are probably not eligible for programs aimed at people in poverty, said Angie Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth.
“So that makes free and reduced lunch even more important for those right above the poverty line,” she said.
Facing other expenses
Students in the free lunch program in the Duluth school district are exempt from paying athletic or other activity fees. Those eating a reduced-price lunch pay a $25 activity fee.
But activities often come with other expenses such as team sweat shirts and meal money on out-of-town trips. Teams and clubs have raised money for such expenses for years, said Tom Pearson, activities director for Denfeld High School, which has a 52 percent rate of students in the lunch program.
But there are many families who don’t qualify for the lunch program and still struggle, he said. And they often come to him asking for payment plans for things like the $500 fee for hockey or the $235 fee for football. He allows that “because I don’t want to put a kid in a spot.”
When teams travel, coaches will often buy pizza for kids “so they’re not burdened with an extra $5 or $10,” Pearson said.
East High School’s activities director also allows payment plans, and he helps kids work around financial challenges.
“We’ve purchased letter jackets for kids who can’t afford it with help from places like Stewart’s, and we’ve had families donate jackets back to the high school, and we change the lettering,” said Shawn Roed. “When we’ve found a student in need, we’ve really worked to make it happen.”
School costs also include yearbooks, class rings, formal dance tickets and game entry fees.
“We’re seeing students being challenged by these situations,” said Denfeld principal Ed Crawford, and the school’s hardship fund helps chip away at some of those costs.
More Denfeld students have been willing to apply for a fee waiver for things like the ACT exam.
“Family incomes can’t handle the additional fee,” said Ellie Martin, a guidance counselor. “And families are much more aware of scholarships. Kids are doing a more thorough job of taking advantage of (scholarships).”
Denfeld has a $17 million endowment for its students, buoyed by alumni.
A lot of students are working after-school jobs, either for pocket money or to help their families, Crawford said.
“It’s manifested in our attendance and grades and in some ways our graduation rate,” he said. “Either they extend to a five-year plan or they try to balance. Some of these kids are working almost full-time.”
That can mean an inability to get up for class on time and less time spent on homework.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of students who fit in that category,” Crawford said. “And we have so many families that are single-parent: mothers working double jobs.”
Denfeld senior Paige McColley is in the lunch program. She comes from a single-parent home and balances two after-school serving jobs with her course-work, often working until 1 a.m. on school nights.
“You go from school to work,” she said, and getting up in the morning on five or six hours of sleep can be hard.
Her jobs help pay for her cell phone, car insurance, gas, clothes and contributions to her household. She misses out on hockey and basketball games and often “all the fun on weekends” with her friends, she said, adding, “I wish I could do more things, but I wouldn’t have time for it now.”
When formal dances come up, she can sometimes afford to go, sometimes not. She’s forgoing this month’s sweetheart dance.
“My friends go to dances, and their parents buy their dress and pictures and it’s like, well …” she said. “My mom doesn’t have very much money, other than for paying bills and having food in the house. If I want it, I have to get it.”
‘Scholarships’ for activities
At Piedmont Elementary School, with 66 percent of its population in the lunch program, Principal Cher Obst has noticed an uptick in students needing help with field trip money, school supplies and clothing. The school makes a lot of referrals to the free Kids Closet, and gives out backpacks, hats, mittens, scarves and snow-pants that others have donated. Piedmont also has a hardship fund for students, and teachers and the Parent Teacher Association pitch in, Obst said.
If a student can’t afford admission to a play, for example, “nobody knows we are paying, but we make sure everybody is participating in the activity,” Obst said.
Students at Morgan Park Middle School, 65 percent of whom are in the lunch program, can apply for a “scholarship” for field trips and other activities. Snacks are often served at after-school activities, and extra bus passes are kept for students who need them. More of the school’s budget is needed for school supplies, and organizations in the community help out often, said principal Denise Clairmont, who has made more referrals to the district’s homeless program coordinator this year than ever before.
“It breaks my heart that our families work so hard to deal with basic need things,” she said, and middle school is a tough age to be without. “Kids are trying to figure out who they are and trying to fit in. Some kids have more than others, so you don’t want to add to hardship of students being different from others.”
Welfare magnet myth
The long-held perception that Duluth is a “welfare magnet” for people who don’t work isn’t really true, Digby said, and 2010 census data shows that.
“Only 15 to 20 percent of those in poverty don’t work at all,” he said, “and the vast majority is probably dealing with some kind of disability.”
Nettleton mom Amy Brooks bristles at the stereotype that “poor people are lazy and living off the government.”
“I don’t know anybody who is doing that,” she said. “It takes a lot for somebody to ask for help. Some people won’t do it and would rather work themselves into the ground.”
Brooks, who studies at Lake Superior College, plans for an eventual master’s degree in social work, a path she chose after volunteering at a Duluth women’s shelter. She gets by with school loans, and she knows those loans will stay with her long after she graduates.
“I’m trying to get out of poverty by getting a degree,” said the Minneapolis native, who moved here 2½ years ago after a divorce. “Anybody in my situation is just trying to make the best of it and get by day to day. I am motivated by my kids to make a better life for them. That’s my focus.”
For more information
For more information about the free- and reduced-price lunch program in the Duluth school district, call (218) 336-8707 or go to the district’s website, www.duluth.k12.mn.us and click on “breakfast and lunch menu,” then “free and reduced application.”