Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

The number of Mother Lode students getting free or reduced-price school meals has increased dramatically over the past several years, an indicator that more families are struggling financially.

About 45 percent of Calaveras County public school students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals during the 2010-11 school year, the latest year with available data. In 2000, only 29 percent were paying a reduced price for school meals or getting them for free.

The increase has been almost as dramatic in Tuolumne County, where 50 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price meals in 2010-11 compared with 37 percent in 2000. Statewide numbers have also increased, with 57 percent of public school students eligible in 2010-11.

The rising Tuolumne County numbers were detailed in the 2012 Tuolumne County Profile, a report released by the Sonora Area Foundation on Sept. 19 that outlined a variety of other population and education-related trends.

Students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals on the basis of family income. According to the California Department of Education, they are eligible for free lunch and breakfast if they come from a family of four that earns $29,965 a year or less, or 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

Guidelines vary on the basis of family size, and students qualify for free meals automatically if their families receive food stamps or certain other benefits. The National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs are federally funded and reimburse schools for the food, provided nutritional guidelines are met.

As of September 2012, 207 Summerville High School students qualified to receive free or reduced-price school meals - representing 44 percent of the student body.

The percentage of students getting free and reduced-price lunches at Jamestown Elementary School has always been high, according to food service manager Debbie Barnum. But it got even higher about three years ago as the economy worsened.

As of last month, 202 Jamestown Elementary students were eligible for free meals and 37 received them at a reduced price. The school's total enrollment is 337, meaning that a full 71 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price meals.

Not all students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches end up taking them, but most at Jamestown do, Barnum said.

In Tuolumne County, Jamestown Elementary and Belleview Elementary School had the highest percentage of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches in 2010-11, with 70 percent of Belleview Elementary students in the category.

About 39 percent of Bret Harte Union High School District students qualify for free and reduced-price school meals, according to food service manager Ann De Lara. The number is the highest she's seen in her 10 years on the job.

At Mark Twain Union Elementary School District, the number of students qualifying was the highest in Calaveras County - about 56 percent - for 2010-11.

"What we struggle with a lot is students or families who don't want to fill out the form that's required for them to get free or reduced (meals)," said Calaveras County Superintendent of Schools Kathy Northington. "We weren't always getting real accurate data. Now, because of the economy, we're seeing more families come forward and fill out the form."

At Sonora High School, where the number of students qualifying for subsidized lunches is now roughly 40 percent, Principal Todd Dearden said he has noticed a rise in the number of students coming from a "high degree of poverty."

"Low-income is one thing, but severe poverty situations are on the rise," Dearden said. "Students are homeless, students aren't fed, they don't have clothing. Their emotional issues that they're dealing with don't allow them to focus on school. They've got bigger fish to fry."

Dearden said he recently spoke to a student who had become homeless. Homeless students automatically qualify for free meals.

Schools get additional federal funding for students in poverty. The funds allow them to buy school supplies such as binders and pencils for homeless students, but not a place to stay, Dearden said. Teachers and school staff often end up "pointing them in the right direction" for further help.

Some California schools are now serving dinner to students. This summer, a state program provided meals to low-income students in some districts. However, it did not serve Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin said she's heard of some students who go hungry until they eat breakfast or lunch at school. Financial stressors at home may make it harder for their parents to support them academically.

However, that doesn't mean students from low-income families are struggling to learn, she said.

Most Tuolumne County schools met their goals for improving the performance of "socioeconomically disadvantaged" students on the STAR tests last year, thanks in part to federal funding that provides them with extra support services.

"It appears to be having a positive academic (effect) regardless of the economic hardships facing more and more families in our county," Bulkin said in an email.

Contact Brenna Swift at or 588-4529.