Significantly more Ashland students are living at or below the federal poverty level this school year than last, likely due to the recession, the superintendent said.

Significantly more Ashland students are living at or below the federal poverty level this school year than last, likely due to the recession, the superintendent said.

The number of Ashland students who qualify for free lunch, meaning their family's incomes put them at or below the poverty level, has increased 24 percent over last year, according to district data.

"I think this is a significant increase," Superintendent Juli Di Chiro told the School Board last week. "We are definitely seeing in our schools the impact of the recession and more families qualifying."

Roughly a third of the district's students qualify for either free or reduced lunch.

Children from a family of four that makes $28,665 annually or less qualify for the free lunch program. Children from a family of four with an income at or below $40,793 per year, qualify for reduced-price lunches.

District-wide, 907 students qualify for free or reduced lunch this school year — 32 percent of the district. Last school year, 28 percent of the district qualified.

"Our numbers haven't jumped like that (in past years)," Di Chiro said Monday. "They've been holding fairly steady over the last five or six years."

Nine fewer students qualify for reduced-price lunch this year, a slight decrease that is outweighed by the substantial increase in the number of students qualifying for free lunch, Di Chiro said.

"That just might mean that they kind of jumped into the free category, and that would make sense," she said.

Only 115 students qualify for reduced lunch, but 792 qualify for free lunch. Ashland students who qualify for either program are also eligible to receive a free breakfast, served about 30 minutes before schools start.

"We would really like to see more families participate in the breakfast program," Di Chiro said. "We have fewer participate in breakfast than we do in lunch."

The district receives federal money for each free or reduced-price meal it serves.

The numbers of students receiving free or reduced lunch increased at every district school, according to a district report.

Ashland High, John Muir, Bellview Elementary and Walker Elementary schools saw the highest increase in students qualifying for the programs.

At Walker, 60 percent of the student body qualifies — the highest percentage in the district.

The fact that the numbers increased at the high school speaks to the severity of the recession, Di Chiro said. Often older students are reluctant to apply for the program, she said.

"The fact that we saw a jump there says to me that we have seen some significant impacts on our families because of the economy," she said.

The number of Ashland students at the poverty level is likely even higher than the lunch program figures suggest, Di Chiro added.

"There are more students that would qualify that don't apply," she said.

Families can apply throughout the school year to participate in the free and reduced lunch program. Those who experience a change of circumstance, such as a job loss, during the school year may reapply.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.