WARNER ROBINS -- Enrollment in federally subsidized school meals is on the rise in Georgia, and data from midstate districts shows the same trend.
As more and more families struggle to make ends meet, local school districts are providing free and reduced meals to more students.
“We’re seeing reflected in our student population, the problems in the economy,” said Bruce Giroux, director of research and assessment for Bibb County schools, where the number of qualified students has risen more than six percent in the past five years and 14 percent in the past decade. “We’ve seen a rise in poverty in our school district over the past 10 years or more, and in actuality when you think about it, we’ve lost some major industries in our area, which has affected our students and their families.”
Seventy-eight percent of Bibb students currently receive free or reduced meals.
The growth has been seen across the district, he said, adding that all but one of Bibb County’s schools -- Springdale Elementary School -- are now qualified as Title I, which is based largely on the poverty rate.
The free and reduced meals offer a helping hand to families trying to stay afloat. With schools providing lunch, there’s one less expense for parents, said Tabitha Watters as she picked up two of her children Friday from Lindsey Elementary School in Warner Robins.
“My fiance just got a pretty good job, but before then we were pretty much living day to day,” she said. “It was tough. We would literally spend our last penny on our children, but with us not having to pay for the lunches, that helps.”
Federal funds to schools
The meals are funded through the National School Lunch Program. Participating schools receive cash subsidies and food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve. In return, the schools must serve lunches that meet federal guidelines and also offer free and reduced price lunches to eligible children.
Nationally, the program served about 7.1 million children in its first year. In 1947, the program cost $70 million. Last year, more than 31 million children were fed by the program, costing $10.8 billion.
Students from a family of four with an income of $29,055 or less qualify for free meals, while those with an income of $41,348 or less can receive meals for a reduced price.
In 2011, nearly 60 percent of Georgia students qualified for free and reduced price meals, up from about 45 percent in 2001.
As of October, more than half of Houston County’s students qualified for the program, up from just above 38 percent in 2001.
“Obviously the economy has played a huge role in that increase,” said Meredith Potter, Houston County school nutrition director. “However, our enrollment in Houston County has increased by about 5,200 in the past 10 years, so obviously when you have more students, you have more free and reduced students.”
Potter said as the district has grown and rezoned school areas, officials try to disperse students as evenly as possible, but some schools still have a higher rate than others. Three schools in Houston County are Provision 2 status, allowing all students at the school to receive meals at no charge. Students at Lindsey, Westside and Pearl Stephens elementary schools eat free breakfast and lunch.
That’s due to those schools having free and reduced participation above 90 percent, so it’s more financially sound for the district to go ahead and provide the lunches for all students, Potter said.
The Houston County School System is reimbursed 28 cents per paid meal, $2.39 per reduced meal and $2.79 per free meal served, she said.
The district is still only reimbursed the higher cost if a student would have qualified for free and reduced meals, so Houston County schools eat some of the costs for the lunches of those students who wouldn’t normally qualify.
“The more kids that we feed, the more reimbursement we receive, so we’re able to improve the quality of food that is offered, and improve the number of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains that are offered,” Potter said. “We’ve also been able to invest money in nutrition education.”
Peach County offers free breakfast at no charge to all of the students in the district, said Darlene Swihart, director of food service for the school system.
The move three years ago was an attempt to help stymie the effects of the spiraling economy, she said, but on average the number of students taking advantage of the breakfast hasn’t really increased.
“Now we’re losing what the students would have paid at the full rate and the reduced rate,” Swihart said. “Financially we’re probably going to have to come back to the way it was before, unless I can get my numbers up enough to support it.”
More than 73 percent of Peach County students qualify for the lunch programs, up from 66 percent in 2006 and 61 percent a decade ago.
“I believe it has everything to do with the current state of the economy,” Swihart said. “Jobs are not out there, and people are getting laid off. People who may not have qualified two years ago are now qualified.”