School lunch data raises questions of equity on the Eastside

A stock lunch photo. Sound Publishing file photo

The free and reduced lunches program offered by school districts is often used as a way to approximate the number of students living in relative poverty compared to the national average.

On its face, the 11 percent of students who are in the program in Lake Washington School District (LWSD) is a vast improvement on the 43 percent of students in it statewide.

But many schools in the district, especially in Kirkland, have rates higher than 20 percent.

Muir, Frost and Einstein Elementary have 36, 35 and 32 percent of their students in the program, respectively.

Other schools with high rates include Kamiakin Middle School at 32 percent, Emerson High School at 28 percent and Rose Hill Elementary at 27 percent.

Bell Elementary, Juanita Elementary, Juanita High School and Keller Elementary also have more than 1-in-5 students in the programs.

Of the 11 schools with more than 20 percent of students in the free and reduced lunches program, all of them have a higher rate of Latino and Hispanic students than those at the other end of the spectrum, according to documents from the Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

Hispanic and Latino students made up between 14 to 29 percent of the total student body at schools with more than 20 percent of students on free and reduced lunches.

Matias Valenzuela, director of the King County Office of Equity and Social Justice, said this stems from complex historical factors of discrimination and a societal intersection of race and income disparity.

“They’re very much historically based,” he said.

Practices like redlining, which were used in the Seattle area, helped to contribute to the disenfranchisement of Jewish, black, Hispanic and Asian families. Maps of these districts where people were kettled into can be seen on the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.

Many people of color were also excluded from the post-World War II GI Bill, which helped veterans pay for college and buy homes, according to KUOW. This has helped contribute to generational wealth inequality.

On the Eastside, wealthy businessmen like Miller Freeman, grandfather of Bellevue mogul Kemper Freeman, helped stoke fears in the early and mid-20th century against Japanese Americans using his newspapers, according to the Seattle Globalist and The Stranger.

An income gap between different groups continues today.

Data from Valenzuela’s office shows that the King County overall poverty rate was 11.2 percent.

White poverty rates were the lowest at 7.5 percent, followed by Asian poverty rates at 11.8 percent.

These numbers jumped significantly for Hispanics and Latinos at 21.6 percent and 28.5 percent for black families.

“Some of those gaps have actually begun to widen in recent decades,” Valenzuela said.

One of the biggest drivers of wealth inequality is affordability, with housing costs soaring in recent years and other amenities becoming more expensive too.

Many people, especially communities of color, have been forced farther and farther from where they work or go to school, adding additional transit costs, Valenzuela said.

“There are areas like the Eastside, and like certain parts of Seattle, where we have – where it’s become very challenging for people to live,” he said. “Especially if they’re not making a good living wage, it’s hard to raise a family, and it become a circular, kind of vicious cycle.”

According to Rent Cafe, the average two-bedroom apartment in Redmond cost $2,000 in September. Sammamish clocked in at $2,100 and Kirkland saw the lowest prices at $1,850.

Minimum wage in Washington state is $11 an hour, meaning a full-time job at that rate only grosses $1,760 a month.

Many well-paying jobs on the Eastside and greater Seattle area are tech-industry positions.

According to the Seattle Business Magazine, Washington state ranks second in the nation for states that import college graduates from outside the state, meaning that many students who are educated here may not be finding jobs in the tech sector.

State leaders have tried to rectify this by emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math education in recent years in state schools and universities.

But the state Supreme Court found in 2012 that the Legislature was not adequately funding basic education in the state and ordered Olympia to fix it.

A deal was reached for the 2017-2019 biennium budget to fix the funding gap by substantially raising property taxes in King County to offset deficits in more rural counties.

This will equate to a nearly $800 increase in taxes for property owners in the LWSD by 2021, according to King County Executive Dow Constantine’s website. This will likely drive housing costs even higher.

According to the OSPI website, students qualify for reduced lunches when their family falls under 185 percent of the federal poverty level, and for free lunches when they are at or below 130 percent of that marker.

For 2017, the federal poverty level for a family of four was $24,600, meaning a four person family must be making $45,510 or under to qualify for reduced lunches.

In a region as expensive to live in as the LWSD, this raises questions as to whether that limit is adequate to meet student needs.

LWSD Director of Intervention Services Kelly Pease said the district couldn’t speak to whether the level of support provided by the program was sufficient, but said there are many other programs they provide to help students.

Frost, Muir and Einstein Elementary all receive Title 1 funding, which provides additional teachers to support students who are not performing at district-standard rates.

“Really, we’re very much a data driven system,” Pease said.

They also provide tutoring at homeless shelters and transportation for students who may currently live outside the district but whose home district is LWSD.

Additional food programs for students to take home over the weekend as well as support for extracurricular activities and athletics are also provided.

“As a district, we look at how to ensure that our students living in poverty have access to the same experience as other kids do,” Pease said.

A variety of private groups area trying to tackle the problem of food insecurity, especially surrounding students in the LWSD.

Many of these are represented in the Redmond Nourishing Network, which coordinates between its members to run a variety of programs.

The group will be collecting food and personal hygiene items to distribute every October at the Redmond Saturday Market.

But a solution to wealth inequality on the Eastside may require more structural changes in society.

“We all win when we all win, in the sense that if we are able to decrease inequalities here it will be something that is favorable for everybody,” Valenzuela said.

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