More students across Missouri getting free or reduced-price lunches

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The number of children receiving free or reduced-price lunches is steadily increasing, data from the Citizens for Missouri's Children shows. The increase worries some health officials, who link reliance on the food program to poverty and limited health-care access.

In Cape Girardeau County, 30.6 percent of students qualified in 2002. By 2006, 38.7 percent were enrolled, according to the annual report Kids Count. The 2007 report, released last week, ranks Missouri counties in 10 areas that relate to children's well-being, such as infant mortality, high school dropout and child abuse rates. The report looks at data through 2006.

"The first thing I thought when I saw the rate jumped 8 percent is that shows 8 percent more children need more help. If you take that and extrapolate it, that many more kids need help with health-care and health issues," said Georgia Gremillion, a family nurse practitioner at Cross Trails Medical Center in Cape Girardeau.

The center accepts patients with no health insurance and offers free or discounted medicine. When asked what positives in well-being she has seen over the past year, Gremillion said, "It's probably the other way. The biggest thing I've seen over the last year are more kids without health insurance. It goes against the saying that Medicaid was supposed to be available to more kids," she said. In 2002, 41.6 percent of children were enrolled in Medicaid; in 2006, 35.7 percent were.

She also said she has seen an increase in children who are being raised by their grandparents or even great-grandparents.

Munnie Pacino, president of the board of directors for Citizens for Missouri's Children, said the number of children receiving free and reduced lunches increased consistently throughout Missouri.

"That's one of the significant findings across the state. It clearly indicates that there are more children living in poverty," she said, adding that research shows poverty puts children at a higher risk for health issues, abuse and neglect.

Despite public perception, the economy was "doing pretty good" until the last three or four months, said Dr. Bruce Domazlicky, the director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Southeast Missouri State University. He said that while more students are qualifying for free or reduced lunches, it does not mean the economy is getting worse. "It just means income may not be rising fast enough," he said.

Jane Wernsman, assistant director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, said the Kids Count report overall is favorable for the county. The county improved in ranking from 30th to 26th, out of 115 counties, between 2006 and 2007. Infant mortality, child deaths, child abuse and neglect, and children in state custody decreased. Low-birthweight infants, births to mothers without high school diplomas, the high school dropout rate and violent deaths of children ages 15 to 19 increased.

Other findings:

* Bollinger County improved in overall ranking from 82nd to 74th. Births to teens ages 15 to 19 decreased from 50.9 to 39.1 per 1,000. However, the county's infant mortality rate is ranked one of the worst in the state, 112th out of 115. Beverly Piepenbrok, Bollinger County health department administrator, said an emphasis has been placed on teen lifestyle choices.

* Scott County's overall ranking worsened from 83rd to 91st, although the county showed improvement in four out of 10 indicators. The child abuse and neglect rate improved, going from 53.5 to 37.1. Births to mothers without high school diplomas, the infant mortality rate, births to teens and violent deaths of children ages 15 to 19 all increased.

* Perry County showed a drop in births to mothers without a high school diplomas, the infant mortality rate and child abuse and neglect. However, the county's overall ranking decreased from 34th to 46th. The high school dropout rate increased from 2.3 percent in 2002 to 5 percent in 2006, placing the county 103rd in the state. Low-birthweight infants increased, but infant mortality decreased.

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County rankings

Citizens for Missouri's Children released a report last week called Kids Count that looks at indicators of children's well-being to rank counties. There are 115 counties in Missouri; the lower the rank, the better.

Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, Scott, Perry

Students enrolled in free or reduced price lunch 25 61 86 34

Births to mothers without a high school diploma 32 70 86 26

Low birthweight infants 79 66 99 66

Infant mortality 49 112 96 48

Child deaths (ages 1-14) 19 61 66 45

Child abuse/neglect 37 58 47 43

Out of home placement 70 63 57 38

Annual high school dropouts 29 44 50 103

Births to teens (ages 15-19) 26 32 101 64

Violent deaths (ages 15-19) 13 92 24 71

Consistently throughout the state and Southeast Missouri the number of students receiving free and reduced lunch increased. To qualify for free meals, the maximum household income a week for a household of one is $256, $343 a week for a household of two, and $430 a week for a household of three.

Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, Scott, Perry

2002 percent 30.6 43.7 48.3 38.1

2006 percent 38.7 47.3 53.5 40.7

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