By Erin Jester | The Gainesville Sun
In a city like Gainesville, home to Florida's flagship university and thriving arts, research and technology communities, poverty isn't necessarily as visible as it is prevalent.
But one in four people in Alachua County is living below the federal poverty line, and many of them are children.
According to a report released last month by the Florida Department of Education, the proportion of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in Alachua County public schools during the 2012-13 school year was 52.96 percent — about 14,200 children.
That's the highest percentage yet, and the growing totals don't show signs of slowing down.
The free and reduced-price lunch program is a federally funded effort to ensure that children who might experience food instability have access to nutritious food, which is essential to their growth and learning.
The scale takes into account household income and size.
Households that are at 130 percent of the federal poverty level or lower qualify for free lunch, said Maria Eunice, director of food service for Alachua County Public Schools. The reduced-price rate is based on household earnings that are 185 percent of the poverty level.
Nationally, the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch continues to increase. According to the most recent comparison by the National Center for Education Statistics, free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rose from 38.3 percent during the 2000-01 school year to 48.1 percent during 2010-11.
For many years, Alachua County followed a similar, steady pattern.
However, Eunice said there has been a marked change since she first came to the district 16 years ago.
For many years, the percentage of public schoolchildren qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch in the district hovered in the mid-40s. Year-to-year changes differed by about 1 percentage point or less.
But the 2007-08 school year saw a significant change in the economy, and the percentage picked up steeply.
Four years after the end of the recession that began in 2007, free and reduced-price lunch rates in Alachua County are not leveling out.
"It almost always goes up," Eunice said. "It's rising slowly."
The percentage of qualifying students grew by almost 3 percentage points during the 2008-09 school year, the first year that reflected changes from the recession.
The rate went up 2.5 percentage points the next year, held steady for two years, then climbed to almost 53 percent eligibility this year.
Four district public schools had more than 90 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch: Duval, Lake Forest, Metcalfe and Rawlings elementaries.
According to the Florida Department of Education, the statewide number of eligible students rose 36 percent in the past 10 years. More than half of all public school students in 55 of the state's 67 school districts qualified during the 2012-13 school year.
Among counties statewide, St. Johns County had the lowest eligibility this year, at 22.51 percent, and Franklin County, for several years now, has had the highest at 100 percent.
John Harrell, a spokesman for Florida's Department of Children and Families, says that according to the most recent survey, 27.7 percent of the children in Alachua County have received food stamp assistance at one time or another.
In fact, North Florida has some of the highest rates of assistance in the state.
Opinions differ on whether the numbers will improve over the next couple of years.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better," said Debbie Mason, president and CEO of United Way of North Central Florida and a member of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce's board of trustees.
Based on the number of children still signing up for weekend food-backpack programs from the United Way, Food4Kids and local churches, Mason said she expects to see enrollment in the free and reduced-price lunch program to increase for the next few years.
She noted that in any recession, the last group to see improvement is the working class. In a few years, when a majority of employers start adding back the minimum-wage jobs, she said, people at the lowest income levels will start to get some relief.
"That is a systemic generational thing that's going to take years to see a change in," she said.
Mason added that she believes members of the community who are not struggling could do a better job of supporting neighbors who are in need.
"We live in a beautiful community. It's easy to not see it," she said. "If people want to do something about it, they can call us."
University of Florida economist David Denslow has a different perspective.
Coming out of the recession, economic trends are favoring geographic areas with a large population of college graduates.
The population bulge from the university might mean Gainesville is in a better position for recovery than other parts of the state, he said.
Denslow also offered an alternative explanation for the increase in free and reduced-price lunch rates.
"Obviously, part of that is the recession," he said, but another factor is that more affluent people are postponing having children.
The number of graduate students with families at UF, typically a struggling group, has gone down, he said, and people are waiting until after finishing their degrees and establishing careers to settle down.
The result is that a higher proportion of young children in the district are from poorer families to begin with.
Roger Strickland, lead professor in the department of economics at Santa Fe College, added that a high number of families in North Florida are dependent on government or construction jobs.
Both markets took a hit with the recession.
The home-building market in particular is not picking up, Strickland said, which will contribute to a sluggish local economy.
"Everyone is hurting," he said.
Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.