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Free and reduced lunch numbers

Students eat lunch in April 2018 at Heyburn Elementary School.

TWIN FALLS — About 45% of Idaho students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, but the rate is higher for the vast majority of Magic Valley school districts.

Across south-central Idaho, the percentage ranges from 27.62% at Xavier Charter School in Twin Falls to 85.66% in the Buhl School District. Data is from March 1, but the Idaho State Department of Education compiled its calculations April 13.

Idaho’s percentage of students who qualify dropped nearly 2 points compared with last school year. Schools often use the data as a way to gauge how many students are living in poverty.

For most U.S. states — including Idaho — preschool through 12th-grade schoolchildren qualify for free meals if their family’s income is less than 130% of the federal poverty level ($32,630 annually for a family of four) or reduced-price meals for those at less than 185% ($46,435 annually for a family of four).

In the Twin Falls School District, 62.72% of students qualified. The percentage dropped a little more than 1% this year, but numbers typically hold fairly steady, food service supervisor Lori Rieth said.

“It isn’t changing a ton,” Rieth said.

One factor that affects the school district’s overall percentage: High schoolers don’t always fill out an application for free or reduced-price meals.

“A lot of times, the high school kids don’t eat at school,” Rieth said, because they go off campus for lunch.

A handful of Twin Falls school campuses — and several others across south-central Idaho — offer free breakfasts and lunches for students regardless of income under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision. Participating schools have a high poverty rate and parents don’t have to fill out paperwork.

In Twin Falls, CEP campuses this school year are Bickel, Harrison, Lincoln, Morningside, I.B. Perrine and Oregon Trail elementary schools, South Hills Middle School, Bridge Academy and Magic Valley High School.

To qualify, at least 40% of a school’s students must be “directly certified,” meaning they qualify for free meals under other programs, such as the Idaho Food Stamp Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Across the Magic Valley, the Buhl School District has the highest rate — at 85.66% — of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Superintendent Ron Anthony said the school district has seen a high percentage for years due to the availability of cheaper housing in the area, but the rate has decreased over time.

Popplewell Elementary School and Buhl Middle School have been CEP schools for several years, so parents at those schools haven’t had to fill out paperwork to determine eligibility. As a result, “the percentage number may not be accurate,” Anthony said.

Popplewell Elementary and Buhl Middle School won’t be CEP campuses next school year, so schools will start collecting free and reduced-price school meal paperwork from parents again.

The Idaho State Department of Education revised free and reduced lunch numbers after an initial report in early April showed approximately 44% of students qualified — a large and unexpected drop compared with last school year, Idaho Education News reported Tuesday. State officials asked school districts to double check their numbers, which resulted in the rate rising to about 45%.

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