ATLANTA — More Georgia students than ever before are relying on federally subsidized school meals — many for the first time — as families struggle to make ends meet in the sluggish economy.
Nearly 60 percent of Georgia’s public school students receive either a free or reduced lunch each day. That’s an increase of about 47,000 students over the last five years enrolled in the program, which is aimed at low-income families.
Experts say there are more needy students than that in the schools, but some families don’t sign up for the federal program — either because they don’t want to ask for help or they don’t know about it.
“It is hard because you have to make a decision on whether or not you want to be prideful,” said Arlena Edmonds, who signed up for free lunches for her 10th-grader when she lost her $48,000-a-year job in 2010. “Thank God this system is available.”
The numbers reflect national figures that show the Great Recession hit middle-class families that were already struggling before the economy tanked. Across the country, more than 20 million students receive federally subsidized lunches each day, compared to 17 million in 2006.
In Georgia, the number of children signed up for reduced meals — which cost families about 40 cents each — has actually declined but enrollment in free meals has swelled. For Georgia, the number of students enrolled in free meals is up by nearly 25 percent, according to state data.
At the Whitfield County schools in north Georgia, nearly 70 percent of children get a federally subsidized lunch. The numbers have spiked from 56 percent in 2006, said Angie Brown, director of school nutrition. The county’s once booming carpet industry has closed multiple plants in the last few years, leaving hundreds out of work in a time when manual labor jobs are scarce.
“You see people that have never applied before asking questions,’” said Brown.
Lunchrooms are feeling the squeeze, too.
Although federal funding has grown by 50 percent for meals for poor children in Georgia, the state money — which is used for cafeteria workers’ salaries and equipment costs — has evaporated. That’s led to schools cutting cafeteria workers, delaying repairs on equipment and offering fewer meal options each day.
State funding for school lunchrooms has shrunk by about 40 percent since 2008, down to $23 million this year.
Meanwhile, families not enrolled in the federal lunch program are having a harder time paying for lunchroom charges, which average about $1.70 per meal. Schools have begun cracking down on outstanding balances.
The state is encouraging districts to adopt formal policies on lunch charges to avoid having to cover outstanding balances that parents never pay, said Claude Mwanda, accounting manager for the state’s School Nutrition Program. Most often, the child is given an alternative lunch — a grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich — until the charge is paid, but occasionally a district will take a family to small claims court over an unpaid bill, he said.
Many families, though, are sending lunch from home rather than paying for the school to cook food.
“Some parents are feeling the economic strain for the first time,” said Meredith Potter, coordinator of school nutrition for Houston County in central Georgia. “We are seeing an increase in lunchboxes in the lunchroom due to the fact that those parents may not have ever applied for any type of benefits before. There are less people charging, but the charges we do have are harder to collect.”
Georgia received more than $600 million in federal money for school lunches this year, compared to $391 million in 2006, according to state data. At the same time, the amount of revenue the programs are generating to help pay for equipment repairs and staff health care has fallen by $10 million, and state revenue is down by about $15 million.
Students from a family of four with an income of $29,005 or less qualify for free lunches, while children from a four-member household with income of up to $41,348 can get a reduced price lunch.
The National School Lunch Program began in 1946, though the USDA was giving schools money for food even before that. The program enrolled 7.1 million children in its first year, swelling to 22 million in 1970 and costing $225 million.
Last year, the program cost $10.8 billion for more than 31 million children.
For Monica DeLancy, who lives in Austell north of Atlanta, enrolling in the federal lunch program was the only option after she quit her full-time job as a teacher four years ago because the doctor’s visits and occupational therapy appointments for her two special-needs children meant she had to miss two days of work each week. Now her children get free meals at school, which helps reduce her food bill each month.
“Everybody is looking for work, and my situation didn’t make it any easier for me to seek employment,” said the single mother, who pays the bills with disability checks and other federal assistance. “I’m glad that program is in existence.”