Food assistance demand in decline in Routt County

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— For the first time in five years, Routt County’s three school districts all are seeing fewer students enroll in the free and reduced-cost lunch program.

But enrollment in the program still is well above where it was in 2007 and the start of the economic recession.

Since 2007 — with the exception of a one-year decline in South Routt’s lunch program enrollment — the number of students utilizing the federally funded free and reduced-cost lunch program has grown steadily in all three districts.

Last year, it grew most dramatically in Steamboat Springs, from 13 percent of the student population in 2010-11 to 17 percent in 2011-12, the equivalent of 102 students.

Today, 15 percent of Steamboat’s student population utilizes free and reduced cost lunches, compared to 38 percent in Hayden and 39 percent in South Routt.

“It’s very sad,” Hayden Finance Director Jnl Linsacum said about the still-high number of families who enroll their students in the program because of financial limitations. “Looking at the income some people put on their applications, I don’t know how they make it.”

In Colorado, a family of three must make less than $24,817 per year for its children to receive free lunches, or less than $35,317 to qualify for reduced-cost lunches.

Those income requirements were raised by about $700 and $1,000, respectively, compared to last year.

The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Linsacum attributed this year’s slight drop in Hayden’s free and reduced-cost lunch population to an improving economy and rising incomes.

The slight decrease in free and reduced-cost lunch participation mirrors other reductions in demand for food assistance in Routt County.

LIFT-UP of Routt County Executive Director David Freseman said that through August, the food bank at his nonprofit distributed just more than 3,400 bags of food, a 19 percent decline from the 4,200 bags delivered at the same time last year.

“The one way I can think of to interpret it is people are doing better economically and financially,” Freseman said. “People are getting more hours, and more people have jobs. We don’t know what else to attribute it to.”

He said drops in demand during the “critical” stretch of the economic recession was attributed to families moving away from Steamboat, but he doesn’t sense that is driving any of the current reductions in demand.

And while the Routt County Department of Human Services is projecting it still will spend $200,000 more on food assistance this year than it did last year, demand hasn’t been growing at the alarming rate it was just two years ago, when the cost of local food assistance nearly doubled from $618,796 in 2009 to $1.1 million in 2010.

The value of monthly food assistance benefits expended by Human Services has been in decline since the end of April.

“We’ve had demand dip down a little bit, but not too much to get excited about,” Human Services Director Vickie Clark said. “It’s kind of leveling out right now.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

Free and reduced lunch students in Routt County


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