More than one in four Kansas children are poor enough to qualify for free lunches at school, according to a statewide survey released Monday.
"That's quite an astonishing figure," said Gary Brunk, executive director of Kansas Action for Children, the Topeka-based advocacy group that produced the annual Kids Count survey.
"We see it as a call to action," Brunk said. "This is not something we should take for granted."
Children are eligible for free school lunches if they live in households earning less than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline -- about $2,000 a month for a family of four.
Kids Count found that 29 percent of the state's children were eligible for free lunches at the start of the 2004-05 school year.
"That's as high as it's been for at least the past five years," Brunk said.
Generally, free-lunch numbers are an indicator of families' and children's well-being.
"They're the canary in the coal mine," said Nancy Jorn, director of maternal and child health field services at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. "Kids who tend to be free-lunch eligible tend to be in families that are struggling or deprived in other areas as well -- adequate housing, health care and, certainly, not getting enough to eat."
In Douglas County, 19.3 percent of the children were eligible for free lunches. Twelve counties had a lesser percentage; 92 had a greater percentage.
Johnson County had the lowest percentage -- 8.7 percent -- eligible for lunch subsidies.
More than half of the children in Ford, Wyandotte and Seward counties receive free lunches.
Only seven counties -- all of them rural and losing population -- did not experience an increase: Clay, Graham, Jewell, Logan, Nemaha, Ottawa and Washington.
Brunk said the findings underscored the need to fend off proposed cuts in federal support programs and to expand access to HealthWave, the state-run health insurance program for children in low-income, uninsured families.
Brunk said he supported using the free-lunch data to reach out to families not yet on HealthWave.
Other Kids Count findings:
|The 2005 Kids Count survey, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, compares Kansas' 105 counties in five categories of benchmarks of children's well-being. Below are Douglas County's rank among the counties, with 1 being best and 105 worst.No. 48 Births to school-aged mothers -- rate per 1,000 teens (4.5)No. 10 Children in poverty (9.6%)No. 13 Children approved for free school meals (19.3%)|
- Binge drinking and tobacco use among teenagers declined 9 percent and 19 percent, respectively, between the 1998-99 and 2003-04 school years.
Contrary to the trend, Bourbon and Sherman counties posted significant increases in both binge drinking and tobacco use.
- Births to school-aged mothers declined 15 percent between 1998 and 2003.
"That's one of the best pieces of news" in the Kids Count findings, Brunk said.
Still, in 2003, 1,214 babies were born to mothers between 10 and 17 years old. And almost one in five live births involved mothers who had not yet earned a high school degree.
- Substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect declined almost 11 percent between 1998 and 2004.
Underwritten by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kids Count is separate from Kansas Action for Children's Report Card, which compares the state's efforts with those in other states. It's due in June.