Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The school lunch index

Want to know how the economy is doing? Check out the school lunch index.

Indicators Northwest, a website that tracks such data, and the Blaine County School District say that 40 percent of its 3,400 students qualify for reduced-cost or free school lunches this year.

Subsidized school lunches are a federal safety net for kids whose families are having difficulty keeping food on the table. Three-member families with annual incomes between $24,817 and $35,317 are eligible for the program.

In 1998-99, just 16.2 percent, or one of every six local students, qualified. In 2009-10, the rate jumped to 35 percent, or one of every three students.

It’s a bad trend. It shows that times are getting tougher—not easier.

Growling bellies of the young don’t lie. They say what many families and business people won’t. While businesses will put on a brave face until the day they shut their doors, families will do whatever they must to ensure the health and education of their children.

Local leaders have been obsessing over marketing “metrics.” The school lunch index is one that’s easy to understand and that may be immune to manipulation.

With summer turning to fall and winter’s shakier business climate not far away, will local leaders and residents simply ignore the school lunch index and what it says about what’s happening here? Or will they replace the area’s most popular motto, “I disagree, therefore I am,” with “It’s the school lunch index, stupid?”

A good choice would be for leaders to focus on structuring and implementing strategies to shore up the local economy and to lower the index by meeting needs for marketing and other programs that bring customers to the area.

Another good choice would be for leaders and constituents to quit playing petty political and personal games that do nothing to help, but much to harm an already bloodied economy by slowing action and diverting community energy.

The Sun Valley area needs leaders and locals alike to come together, find areas of agreement and then row mightily toward the goals they’ve set. This would give the area a chance to avert further damage and stabilize the local economy.

If we make bad choices, if we continue to wound ourselves with miscommunication, magical thinking, bickering and bluster, the local economy will continue to fall and the school lunch index will continue to rise.

Even if we do everything right, recovery will continue to be excruciatingly slow and difficult for tourism-based economies like ours. Driving down the school lunch index would be a sign we’re doing something right.

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