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More students in Arizona’s suburbs qualify for free or reduced-price lunch

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MESA – Hunger isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when looking at Hermosa Vista Elementary School. Bordered by gated communities of large stucco houses with well-manicured lawns, Hermosa Vista seems to be full of children more concerned about recess than where their next meal is coming from.

And yet more than a quarter of the students in this affluent area qualified for free or reduced price lunch as of October 2013, the latest available report from the Arizona Department of Education.

“Everyone has been falling on hard times,” said Robin Hunt, the school’s cafeteria manager.

Hunt said she wasn’t too surprised by a recent report suggesting more suburban children, like the 200 or so she serves every day, are participating in the National School Lunch Program, the federal meal assistance program for families who fall at or below certain income eligibility guidelines.

“It can hit anybody, anywhere,” Hunt said. “It doesn’t matter where you live.”

According to the August 2014 report from the nonprofit Fair Share Education Fund, the fastest-growing segment of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch is in the suburbs.

Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the Fair Share report compared participation levels in the program from the 2006-07 and 2010-11 school years – before and after the Great Recession. During that time, 45 percent of suburban public school students nationwide became eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 43 percent of students in urban and rural areas combined.

Arizona had the third-largest difference between suburban and statewide eligibility rates behind Wyoming and North Dakota. Suburban eligibility went up nearly 9 percent, while the statewide rate increased by 4 percent.

David Elliot, Fair Share’s communication director, said the report’s findings show how the suburbs are beginning to look like the rest of America.

“Two years ago we might assume childhood hunger exists in urban areas or rural areas, but now we actually know every community in America is a place dealing with childhood hunger,” Elliot said. “(It’s happening) in places where folks might once have said it can’t happen here.”

According to Elliot, hunger is hard to measure but particularly so in suburban areas, where overt signs of poverty can be masked by surrounding affluence.

“Your next-door neighbor might be hungry but you have no idea,” Elliot said.

Patricia Anderson, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College who is conducting a study on the impact of the Great Recession on food insecurity, said a national rise in food insecurity is not just tied to unemployment and a lousy real estate market. According to Anderson, families are no longer acting – and spending – above their actual income levels.

“Imagine I don’t lose my job, but I see other people lose their jobs. I don’t lose my house, but my home equity goes way down … and I think I have to start saving for a rainy day,” Anderson said. “I change my whole view on how much money I can spend.”

To Anderson, the idea that more suburban children are participating in the National School Lunch Program makes sense when characterizing suburbs through a post-recession lens as “the places that had more leverage (mortgage, loan and credit card debt compared to income), that lost more home equity.”

In Arizona, the number of children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has risen gradually since 2006, jumping more than 3 percent between 2009 and 2010, just after the height of the recession, to more than 550,000 students.

Mary Szafranski, associate superintendent for the Arizona Department of Education’s Health and Nutrition Services, said the department doesn’t track participation in the school lunch program by region, but she added that the steady increase in participants could be due to a variety of factors.

“You could have increased population growth,” Szafranski said. “You could have the parent who qualifies based on income, so that means their income has been reduced or eliminated.”

Loretta Zullo, food and nutrition director for Mesa Public Schools, said participation is up in all free and reduced-price meal categories.

“At $1.85 we’re a great bargain,” Zullo said of the full-price daily hot lunch. “I think parents see school lunch, whether it’s tied to the National School Lunch Program or not as a good value or convenience.” A reduced-price lunch containing the same food costs 40 cents.

However, Zullo said some parents, particularly in high socio-economic suburban areas, might struggle to accept what they see as assistance, the school lunch program doesn’t carry the same stigma it once did.

“We promote it as a child nutrition program, not welfare,” Zullo said.

At Hermosa Vista Elementary School, which has one of the district’s lower eligibility rates for free or reduced price lunch, children simply tell the cashier their student ID number before piling their trays high with mini-corndogs or turkey sandwiches and heading to the salad bar. Zullo said many students don’t even know whether the meal they’re eating is full-price, reduced or free because the process of enrolling is very discreet.

“School meals should be like school buses,” she said. “They should be available for all children.”