More students on free and reduced lunch

Noel Almodovar has had to deal with many changes since his mother lost her Tampa job earlier this year.

The 14-year-old's family no longer has Internet access or TV. When his XBox video game system broke, that was the end of that.

And now when he walks up to the lunch counter at Hernando High School he gives them a number and walks away with a free pepperoni roll or chili dog.

Noel and his 7-year-old sister Victoria are among thousands of new students getting a free or reduced-priced lunch at schools. The economy's effect on families has been so dramatic that just about every Tampa Bay area school district serves about half or more of their students free or lower priced meals.

Some schools are used to having high numbers of low-income kids. But others, such as Garrison-Jones Elementary in Dunedin, are trying to get used to it. Last year, just 19 percent of the school's 707 students were on free or reduced lunches. This year, it's 34 percent.

"And they're still coming in," said principal Karen Buckles. "It's just a different day."

• • •

For hundreds of years, charities and various governments around the world have taken it upon themselves to help feed hungry children in school. In the United States, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act in 1946 providing federal money to feed low-income children. Later, breakfast was added.

This year, with Tampa Bay unemployment in the double digits, more than 17,000 new children began receiving those meals in Hillsborough, Hernando, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Pasco experienced an 18 percent increase from the last school year, with another 5,201 students receiving free or reduced price meals. Hernando saw 1,151 more students for a 9.7 percent increase. Hillsborough added 8 percent, or more than 8,000 students. Pinellas had a 7 percent jump with 3,178 students added to the program.

Usually schools experience incremental increases.

Some schools, such as Oak Park Elementary in Tampa, have traditionally had a large number of low-income kids. Just 16 of the school's 559 students pay full price for lunch or bring their own.

"Thank goodness we do have the schools to help," said Joyce Miles, the school's principal.

But these days there are some things schools can't help with. Like housing.

"Several more families are living in hotels in the surrounding areas where they can pay a weekly rate that is much smaller instead of a larger rent at the end of the month," Miles said.

Other schools, like Garrison-Jones Elementary in Dunedin, are finding themselves in new territory as they adjust to dramatic changes in students' lives.

Anne Yanson, guidance counselor at Garrison-Jones Elementary, said she's talking with more and more families who are living with relatives and struggling to pay for tutors, clothes, medicine.

"We're not used to dealing with this," said Yanson. "I think that it's kind of a shift."

The effect is being felt most in school cafeterias, many of which are putting out hundreds more meals with the same staff.

Clearwater's Belleair Elementary School now cooks 100 more breakfasts and lunches every day compared with a year ago.

"We've got a little pill box for a kitchen," said Richard Mazzarese, cafeteria manager at Belleair, "and our children start being served at 7:50 in the morning and by 8:25, we've fed 325 kids. It's something to be seen."

Pinellas already has taken the effort to feed students beyond the school day.

Belleair Elementary has partnered with a church group, United Methodist Cooperative Ministries Suncoast, that is providing needy students with food they can take home on the weekends.

"Our managers are telling us sometimes (the students) haven't eaten anything good since they left on Friday," said Art Dunham, assistant director of food services for Pinellas County Schools.

The Pinellas School Board recently approved expanding the pilot program. It is being introduced at Walsingham Elementary in Largo in the next few weeks.

• • •

Noel's mother, Cristina Almodovar, made $30,000 a year working customer service for bank transfers at JP Morgan & Chase before she lost her job in January.

Now the single mother, who says she receives no child support, lives with her children in a rent-reduced apartment in Brooksville. They receive $284 a week in unemployment and $274 a month in food stamps.

She doesn't tell her kids that sometimes, to put food on the table, she gets it from the food pantry at Metropolitan Ministries.

"I tell them what I feel they are capable of comprehending for their ages," said Almodovar, who has been applying for eight to 30 jobs a week. "I don't want to overwhelm them. My son especially. He takes a lot on his shoulders."

Noel, who is on his school's wrestling team, doesn't talk with his friends about the challenges at home. They still just goof around, talk about girls, go to practice.

But he seems conflicted by his plight. One minute, he's embarrassed. The next, he realizes his family is not alone.

"I'm a little worried but I know we'll get through it," he says. "We just have to deal with it."

It's his birthday next week. His mother has $25 to spend. She's not sure what to get him. Maybe she'll take him out someplace special to eat.

Times staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640. Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writers Thomas Marshall, Tony Marrero, Ron Matus, Jeff Solocheck and Luis Perez contributed to this report.

Biggest increases

Schools with large increases in the percentage of students on free and reduced lunches, by district*:

20082009

Pasco

Anclote Elem.65%72%

Deer Park Elem.25%35%

Pasco Middle60%70%

Pinellas County

McMullen-Booth26% 44%

Elem.

Oak Grove Middle41%51%

North Shore 54%61%

Elem.

Hillsborough

Burns Middle.20%29%

Kingswood Elem.56%67%

Lake Magdalene 38% 47%

Elem.

* Hernando County Schools did not respond to requests for school by school information.

Percentage rising

Numbers of students on free and reduced lunch by school district:

2008 2009

Hernando11,813 12,964

52 % 57%

Hillsborough100,585 108,607

54 % 58 %

Pasco28,655 33,856

43 % 51 %

Pinellas45,926 49,104

39 % 46%

More students on free and reduced lunch 11/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 11:25pm]

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