The economic downturn since 2008 has pulled many families into poverty or close to it, a trend public school cafeterias are seeing firsthand.
Locally and across Georgia, more students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches this year than in the previous two years, according to data recently released by the state Department of Education.
Statewide, the percentage of eligible children rose from 53 percent in 2008 to 56.1 percent in 2009 and 57.4 percent in 2010.
Those figures show a positive sign statewide because the increase this year was less than half of the rise for 2009, according to Steve Suitts, the vice president of the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta think tank focused on improving the quality of education in the South.
"I think we're back in pre-recession mode, where there's going to be a continual (small) increase, but not as much as the previous two years," Suitts recently told the Athens Banner-Herald. "That seems to be the trend in local school systems and statewide."
That might not be true in the Augusta area. Columbia County saw a 2.8 percentage-point increase in eligibility this year to 32.1 percent, following a 2.6-point increase last year to 29.3 percent. Richmond County's 1.7-point increase this year to 74 percent was nearly as large as the 2-point rise to 72.3 percent last year. Columbia County still has the area's lowest eligibility rate by a significant margin.
McDuffie County had the region's largest gain, rising from 64.8 percent in 2008 to 71.6 percent in 2010. Burke County saw a slight decline, from 83.7 percent in 2008 to 83.6 percent this year, but continued to lead the Augusta area.
Richmond County school board member Jack Padgett said he was not surprised by the trends, in part because of the economy and an effort by schools to make parents aware of the National School Lunch Program.
A closer look at those figures shows more students are qualifying for free lunches, while fewer qualify for reduced-price lunches.
In Richmond County, the number qualifying for free lunch rose from 20,193 in 2008 to 22,115 in 2010, but the number qualifying for reduced-price lunch dropped from 2,792 to 1,788. Similar trends can be seen in other local counties, statewide and in the Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., school systems.
That also didn't surprise Padgett, who, as the board's legislative liaison, keeps current on state and local trends.
"My bet would be that there would be a few who were reduced moving to free, but you would find many jumping over reduced and straight to free," he said. "That's what I'm hearing everywhere."