Lunch says lots about economy

Overall, 54 percent of students who attend county schools are on a reduced or free lunch plan.

More than two years after the closing and loss of more than 400 jobs from the Carriage House plants in Dunkirk and Fredonia, the financial stress factor for families in this region continues to grow. According to the U.S. Census bureau, about 18 percent of those living in this county are doing so in levels below poverty.

Unfortunately, however, those reported numbers may be too low.

Despite the potential of more prosperous times in the coming years — building on the rebirth of Buffalo, Erie County and the Athenex project — there are other percentages to consider when talking about the present. The best indicator of a community’s economic health comes from its school districts.

We’re not talking about the multi-million dollar annual budgets, the quarterly student grades or graduation rates. Instead, it comes down to the reduced and free lunch percentages.

In the past three years, according to the state Education Department report cards, those numbers have grown. The greatest increase is in the district of Forestville, where the student population increased from 44 percent to 51 percent on the program. Westfield also saw an increase of 4 percent to 51 percent.

Overall, more than half of the county’s 18,547 students — 54 percent — are part of the reduced and free lunch program. What may be more surprising to many, however, is some of the greatest need comes from the most rural areas. Here is a breakdown of the districts:

¯ Brocton — 57 percent.

¯ Cassadaga Valley — 54 percent.

¯ Chautauqua Lake — 48 percent.

¯ Dunkirk — 63 percent.

¯ Forestville — 51 percent.

¯ Fredonia — 36 percent.

¯ Gowanda — 58 percent.

¯ Lake Shore — 43 percent.

¯ Pine Valley — 60 percent.

¯ Ripley — 70 percent.

¯ Silver Creek — 60 percent.

¯ Westfield — 51 percent.

In other words, the poorest district in the north county is also the smallest. Ripley has 70 percent of its 140 students receiving free lunch.

Those figures have also greatly affected the numbers at Chautauqua Lake. Before tuitioning, the reduced and free lunch numbers at the Mayville school were 16 percent. Since Ripley secondary students — in grades seven to 12 — now attend, that number has tripled to 48 percent.

This column is not to point fingers. It is just one more example of how the high-tax burden in this county, a great deal of it tied to school taxes, negatively affects our demographics as well.

An article in May in The Wall Street Journal noted how small communities across the nation, once a safe haven from drugs, crime and job loss, have had greater trouble coping with the changing global economy as smaller businesses and manufacturers have closed down.

What happens then? Growth has to be tied to the public sector and government work, which allows higher taxes and fees to squeeze those who attempt remain and have trouble finding steady jobs or live on a fixed income.

That sounds like Chautauqua County and, unfortunately, the true income numbers from the schools back it up.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to or call 366-3000, ext. 401.