As the United States’ unemployment rate remains steady at 1.3 million, the percent of North East students eligible for free and reduced lunches increased by 1.56 from the 2008-09 to 2009-10 school years.

Brian Polito, Business Manger of the North East School Board District, said the increase in eligibility reflects the poor economic conditions.

“More students are coming to school from disadvantaged families,” said Polito.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8.7 percent of Pennsylvanians are unemployed and 477,000 were collecting unemployment benefits as of June 19.

Despite the high unemployment rate, many families do not use the free and reduced lunch program.

“Many students and families who do not use the program, qualify,” said Polito.

According to the standards set by the National School Lunch Program, any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the program.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. For the period July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010, 130 percent of the poverty level is $28,665 for a family of four and 185 percent, $40,793.

During the 2009-10 school year, 39.33 percent of North East students were eligible for free and reduced lunches compared to the 2008-09 school year of 37.77 percent.

In addition to offering free and reduced lunches, the NESD offers students free breakfasts throughout the school year and free lunch during the summer.

“Students who are eligible for free lunches are also eligible for free breakfast,” said Polito.

Vikki Stetson of 4 N.I.N.E. Place Thrift Store, said she has also noticed an increase in need.

“We have been very, very busy. Busiest we have ever been since we opened and that was 12 years ago,” said Stetson.

Stetson said many customers have stopped in the thrift store with a variety of needs.

“We have gotten all kinds of people saying, ‘Thank you, we wouldn’t have made it without you,’” said Stetson.

Unemployed workers have returned to 4 N.I.N.E. to receive their GED and other local, state, government and private aid application forms.

“We have applications for all kinds of things, like Head Start and food stamps,” said Stetson. 

She said patrons, specifically senior citizens, could receive these application forms by stopping by the thrift store and answering 30 questions on the computer.

“We can sit down with you and print out all the aid application forms you qualify for,” said Stetson.

Services such as these are available for free and profits generated at the thrift store remain in the community.

“Every cent we make stays in the community. No one is paid. We are 100 percent volunteer,” said Stetson.

The 4 N.I.N.E. Place thrift store accepts donations to help others in the community.

“You can either stop in with stuff or place clothing bags on our loading dock on the north side of the building,” said Stetson.

In addition to the thrift store, the North East Food Pantry, 30 Bothel St., serves North East residents and Greenfield Township residents in need during the first four Saturdays of the month.

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