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County schools are on a nutrition mission

Over the past decade, local school districts have seen sharp increases in the number of students qualifying for federally funded free or reduced-price lunches, and now more than half of Jackson County students are eligible.

At Medford's Jackson Elementary School, more than 90 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-priced lunches, an indicator of the low-income neighborhoods in the area.

"As each year goes by, it's getting worse," said Terri Dahl, Medford schools supervisor of federal programs. "It is a concern."

Since statistics were first recorded a dozen years ago, schools have watched the number of eligible students creep up, by as much as 20 percentage points for some.

As of this month, 54 percent of students in the Medford School District qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Dahl said teachers are "hyper-vigilant" as new low-income students enter the district, quick to help families receive benefits and make sure they are aware of options and resources.

Students from low-income families may struggle more at school, according to Jackson Principal Kelly Soter.

"It creates a more challenging environment for the kids," said Soter. "And we have to make sure that not just their educational needs are met."

Just five years ago, only 37 percent of Medford students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, something offered if a family falls below a particular income level, which fluctuates each year.

For the 2011-12 school year, a family of four making $41,348 or less qualifies for a reduced-price lunch, and the same family making below $29,055 qualify for a free lunch.

The income level deemed eligible for free or reduced-price lunches is higher than the federal poverty threshold, which in 2011 was $22,113 for a family of four.

Dahl said the district also has breakfast available for all students, and received an additional grant this year to offer daily snacks of fresh fruits and vegetables at some schools.

The $250,000 grant covers the district's Title 1 schools — those that have the most low-income children — and offers the students snacks such as pluots or figs, which they otherwise might never encounter.

"The theory behind it is to help children make good food choices," said Dahl, who believes many low-income students receive their food from food banks, which rarely have a large selection of produce.

While Dahl said the Medford School District has made a sizable effort to help its low-income students, other districts in the county have even higher percentages of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

With the exception of two small schools in rural Butte Falls, the Phoenix-Talent School District has the highest percentage of students who qualify in the county, with more than 65 percent during the 2010-11 school year.

Within the district, the highest numbers last year came from Phoenix Elementary, where 78 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunches.

"We've always had a high number," said Principal Jeff Carpenter. "The economy is probably the biggest player in the game."

Ten years ago, 56 percent of students at Phoenix Elementary qualified for the lunches, and the number has climbed steadily since.

Carpenter said teachers have close relationships with their students, and staff work to help out families in need.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.

Second-grader Marisol Cortes treats her pizza with kid gloves Wednesday at Jackson Elementary School, where she's ready for the playground after lunch. - Bob Pennell