More than 40 percent of Indiana school children participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program, up 27 percent since 2004, and still not every eligible child is enrolled.
In Northwest Indiana, the numbers also continue to rise, with 56.2 percent of children in Lake, 53.7 percent of children in LaPorte and 34.4 percent of children in Porter counties participating in the program. That's compared to 2003, when 41.4 percent of Lake children, 34.3 percent of LaPorte children and 19.1 percent of Porter children participated in the program.
Indiana Youth Institute President and CEO Bill Stanczykiewicz said the upward trend has been going on since 2000. He said although more people work in the manufacturing sector in Indiana than any other state in the country, at 20 percent, the number of manufacturing jobs continues to decline.
"It's because companies don't need people. They can make more stuff because of better technology," he said.
Stanczykiewicz stopped in Northwest Indiana during a visit across the region to talk about a variety of issues confronting youth, including the number of youngsters on free and reduced-price lunch, fighting childhood obesity and finding the best college bargain.
Because of the dwindling jobs, Stanczykiewicz said there has been an increase in the level of poverty. He said some of that is because of the increase in the number of children raised in single-parent families.
"That's not to say that everyone born to a single-parent family will live in poverty. Our president was raised in a single-family household and so was the first lady of our state, Karen Pence," he said. "A child is five or six times more likely to live in poverty from a single-parent home."
What's even more important is that it is difficult for a child who is hungry to learn, Stanczykiewicz said, adding that school breakfast and lunch programs are critical. Yet, only about a quarter of the children who eat lunch participate in the breakfast program.
"Lunch may be the only (healthful) meal a students gets all day. The lunch on Friday may be the last (healthful) meal a student gets all weekend," he said.
"Of course, the long term solution is economic development, economic solutions and an education so all can be self-supporting," Stanczykiewicz said.
The Indiana Youth Institute president and CEO also talked about the importance of helping food banks with donations, donating at work or at church, as well as the importance of mentors in a youngster's life.