Ga. school lunch program sees spike

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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.”

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southern2
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southern2 12/18/11 - 03:42 pm
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At the risk of sounding

At the risk of sounding heartless, I would like to see only one program supplying the nutrition needs of the poor. With so many USDA programs in place...EBT food stamps, WIC, National School Program, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, School Breakfast Program, Special Milk Program, Summer Food Program, etc... it seems that taxpayers are forced to pay to supply food in multiple ways for each meal. How about families on EBT food stamps make lunches for each family member eating away from the home and not let them be entitled to another free meal at school. If this seems to harsh then deduct the school lunch payments from the EBT card.

GaStang22
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GaStang22 12/18/11 - 05:49 pm
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Agreed southern2, but making
Unpublished

Agreed southern2, but making people who make a career out of living off the taxpayers take responsibility for even the littlest thing is not acceptable in this country. Thank a bleeding heart today!!! =)

dstewartsr
20393
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dstewartsr 12/18/11 - 07:01 pm
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Southern2: Hear, hear!

Southern2: Hear, hear!

corgimom
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corgimom 12/18/11 - 07:42 pm
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For those of you commenting-

For those of you commenting- the amount of food stamps that a family receives takes into account the school-aged children getting free school lunch. So- you can either have them get free school lunch, or increase the amount of food stamps that a family gets. It's the same way with WIC.

There was a time when I was unemployed and my son was on free lunch. There is a myth that all the kids on free lunch have freeloading parents, and that just isn't true.

There are a lot of children whose parents work and they make so little that the children qualify. I would also like to point out that includes American servicemembers and their families. Are American soldiers freeloaders? You would want to cut a program that feeds our soldiers' children?

And I just can't fathom how people want to cut a program that feeds hungry children, in the richest nation in the world. That is incomprehensible to me. What purpose does it serve to allow children to be hungry? Who would think that's acceptable?

southern2
7780
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southern2 12/18/11 - 08:26 pm
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First corgimom, I certainly

First corgimom, I certainly would not want to see a single child or adult for that matter go hungry but beyond popular belief the sky is not the limit. It is hard for me to believe that there is no wiggle room for EBT card users when I have personally watched them check out at the grocery store.

Also your solution..."you can either have them get free school lunch, or increase the amount of food stamps that a family gets." seems to place the burden on me. What about the parents that brought them here? Shouldn't they bear at least some of the responsibility of raising their children?

itsanotherday
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itsanotherday 12/18/11 - 09:53 pm
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Corgimom, this is harsh and I
Unpublished

Corgimom, this is harsh and I expect backlash; but as long as we let our concern for children dictate policy, we will fail at making policy that is best for all.
Let me explain. We have a segment of the population (worldwide) who breed like rabbits. We all let our hearts rather than our brains guide our philosophy because there are innocent children involved. As long as we do that, we will prop up those having children they cannot support, and just continue the cycle. It is bitter medicine, but at some point we will have to let children suffer some if we are to break that cycle.
Sorry, but I tend to view things in a pragmatic, logical fashion; and that is the way I see it.

scoobynews
3896
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scoobynews 12/19/11 - 08:17 am
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The problem is abuse of the

The problem is abuse of the system. I personally know that many of the kids who are approved for free or reduced lunch live in neighborhoods that I can't even afford to live in. I turn in the forms and it is right there in black and white for all to see the "reported incomes" can not possibly be accurate to live in the neighborhoods they live in. I seriously doubt anyone at the school level bothers to personally check into this thus a large number of free or reduced lunches are approved based on the information provided on a simple sheet of paper that the parent fills out. The other problem is that I see an astronomical amount of food being thrown away by these kids. I saw a kid who gets free lunch on Friday sit at the table with his lunch untouched and then when it was time for us to go he threw the whole thing in the trash. He was called to go home after we returned to the room. Most likely he didn't touch his lunch because he knew he was going home early and he was going to eat lunch elsewhere. These kids are required to get the lunch regardless of whether they eat it or not. Free is not free. Someone had to pay for that meal and that someone is the tax payers. I am all for helping those in need and we have some very hungry in need children but until we come up with a better plan these people who are abusing the system will drain us all dry.

allhans
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allhans 12/19/11 - 09:25 am
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I think..lazy parents that

I think..lazy parents that won't get up early enough to throw together a peanut butter sandwich that is healthier than some of the stuff served in the schools, which many kids refuse to eat after they get it.

scoobynews
3896
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scoobynews 12/19/11 - 02:04 pm
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allhans that is very true.

allhans that is very true. The meals at schools are pure junk. When my child starts school I will be packing his lunch. I would rather be in control of what he eats not the school even if I have to get up 30 minutes earlier to prepare it.

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