LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) -

On World Hunger Day, organizations in the Coulee Region highlighted childhood hunger in area schools and families.

La Crosse's Hunger Task Force held its annual Hunger Forum at the Boys and Girls Club. Panels discussed what's being done to combat hunger and what more still needs doing. Organizers focused on childhood hunger, highlighting the fact that 49 percent of students in the La Crosse School District qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Dirk Hunter, principal of Summit Elementary, says 56 percent of his students qualify. That has tripled since he first started in 1991, when the number was at 18 percent. He comes face to face with hunger often inside his school.

"Sometimes kids talk about what they didn't have to eat the day before, when they were at home," he says. "I talked to a little first grader yesterday. There are nights when they don't have supper [at home]." 

Like at Summit, the number of students getting free or reduced lunch across the state of Wisconsin is up. According to the Department of Instruction, there was a statewide increase of .1 percent. It's a climb that has spanned a decade, up from under 30 percent of students ten years ago. Altogether, La Crosse County saw a mixed bag of changes. Onalaska and Bangor dropped by more than 2 percentage points, while La Crosse, Holmen and West Salem increased.

To qualify for a free lunch, a family must make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. The reduced lunch level is at 185 percent.

Because of numbers like this at Summit and across the state, Hunter was a panelist at this year's forum. He's hoping to create community awareness on the issue.

"People need to understand even in a community like La Crosse that has all these wonderful organizations that care about families and children, we still experience it in our schools and our community - this issue of hunger," he said.

Hunter says Summit does its part to help alleviate hunger in the community. The schools provides breakfast to nearly 200 students, and it also partners with Hunger Task Force to offer monthly food baskets to about 20 families.

Shelly Fortner, the executive director at Hunger Task Force, hopes to create more collaboration between organizations.

"No one can do this by ourselves, and there's power in numbers," she said. "If we are all coordinating, we can just make things happen here."