Scores more kids are looking for a free lunch from Elk River schools.

The north Twin Cities exurban district, which superintendent Mark Bezek describes as "a poster child for this whole mortgage debacle," now has a record-high 18 percent of its students getting free- and reduced-price meals because paying for school lunch has become too much of a financial burden.

Many more students whose parents have fallen on tough economic times shy away from enrolling because of the down-on-your-luck stigma they attach to free-and-reduced lunch. So, there's no telling how many students need those services but haven't applied.

Though the percentages of students getting free or low-cost meals has only risen 2 percentage points from last year, a big part of that increase has come within the last several months, as the nation's recession has deepened. Julee Miller, director of Elk River schools' foods services, said almost 200 students have been added to the free and reduced rolls in just the past two to three months.

Other signs indicate that families are feeling a greater financial pinch.

"From what we're hearing from cashiers, a lot of families are struggling to get money into their student [meal] accounts," Miller said. "We also get a lot of requests, 'Please don't deposit this check for a week,' or the kids come in [to pay for their meals] with pockets full of change."

Statewide, the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch has risen slightly from last year's 32 percent to the current 33 percent. Checks with other districts, which have historically had relatively low levels of poverty, reveal varying stories. In Hopkins schools, for example, free and reduced lunch kids now make up 30 percent of the schools K-12 population, compared with 27 percent last year. In Anoka-Hennepin, the free and reduced lunch count went from 24 percent in December 2007 to 25 percent last December.

Bezek thinks Elk River has been hit harder than many districts because of its rapid growth.

"People were overextending themselves," he said. "They're pushed to the limit and they lose their houses. In our district, we had the fastest-growing areas in the state for a while. Right now, we're seeing foreclosure after foreclosure. We have a lot of empty houses, and a lot of developments that developers have bailed out on."

Housing statistics from Sherburne and Wright counties, from where Elk River draws many of its students, paint a bleak picture. In 2003, 3,100 homes were built in those counties. In 2008, that number dropped to 500. Meanwhile, foreclosures soared from 210 to 1,660 during that same period. Bezek cited one subdivision in Elk River, where homes were going for $400,000 a few years ago. Now, he said, they're selling for $215,000.

Other signs of stress

The economic downturn affects Elk River schools in other ways. Family stress is up, and school psychologists are reporting more consultations with students, Bezek said.

He also wonders what's in store. An anticipated increase in school activity fees in the district next year could result in fewer kids going out for sports or other extracurricular activities. Also, the district will need to renew a tax levy in 2010. If more district residents are having to scrimp and save, that reduces the chances for a successful referendum.

Bezek doubts the growth in kids taking free and reduced lunch will subside soon.

"It's probably going to be worse rather than better. It wouldn't surprise me if we get more and more kids applying."

When district officials first noticed the spike in applications for free and reduced lunch services, they posted the news on their website. The idea was to appeal to residents who either felt a stigma about applying or didn't know such services existed.

"We're trying to reach the people who have never been in this situation before, and they don't know what's available and where to turn," said Miller, who noted that the meal assistance program is paid for out of state and federal funds.

"The message we get from people when they do break down and apply is, 'I don't want anyone to know this.' This is a great concern of ours, these families that don't want to apply because of the stigma. We try to assure them that this is extremely confidential."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547