Seven out of 10 elementary students in Santa Rosa City Schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, reflecting a rising level of poverty in the city's core schools, according to guidelines established by the federal government.

Less than a decade ago, about half of the elementary students in Sonoma County's largest school district were eligible for subsidized lunches.

Today, at four of the district's 10 elementary schools, income levels are so low that more than 90 percent of students get help in paying for their lunches.

Only Proctor Terrace and Hidden Valley schools, both which serve more affluent neighborhoods, have poverty levels lower than 65 percent.

"It's a huge number that indicates a level of adversity and poverty that families have and it's just kind of shocking," said school board President Frank Pugh.

A family of four with an annual income of less than $40,790 is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast. Those families are not charged for the meal, according to district policy.

At Monroe Elementary, 96 percent of students qualify, while the percentages are 95 at Lincoln, 92 at Helen Lehman and 91 at Brook Hill Elementary schools.

"Diversity at our schools over the last 20 years has changed tremendously," said Pugh, a trustee for 21 years. "There's been a huge change in student population as far as socioeconomics and as far as ethnicity as well. It has significantly changed, and that is the evolution of Santa Rosa."

In addition to the elementary schools that are part of the Santa Rosa city district, the city has eight other districts, and all have seen an increase in poverty rates.

In three districts, all in the southwest part of the city, the rates of poverty are nearly as high or higher as in the Santa Rosa city district. Almost seven in 10 students are deemed low income at the Wright school district. The ratio is closer to nine in 10 at both the Bellevue and Roseland districts.

The remaining five districts have seen their portion of students on subsidized lunches roughly double in the last decade.

Even so, the ratios remain significantly below that of Santa Rosa. For example, only two in 10 students are designated economically disadvantaged in the Bennett Valley district.

Some of the disparity is because of the relatively more affluent neighborhoods that comprise these school districts. And some of it may be due to school choice, where middle-class families have transferred out of high-poverty schools.

The portion of students on subsidized lunches is 12 percent for the Kenwood district, 34 percent for Mark West, 43 percent for Rincon Valley and 53 percent for Piner-Olivet.

This year's rates aren't yet available for all 40 Sonoma County school districts or for the entire state.

Last year, counting all grades, four in 10 county students were signed up for the subsidized lunch program. For California, the rate was 56 percent.