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Families struggle to pay for school lunches

POSTED: March 28, 2009 11:02 p.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Visiting mom Christy Rassel joins Fair Street Elementary students for lunch Thursday afternoon in the school's cafeteria. Jefferson City and Hall County school systems say not only are they experiencing an increase in the number of students applying for free and reduced lunches, they also have many children who can't pay for lunch.

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The struggles many families are having during this troubled economy have trickled down to the contents of little Suzie and Bobby’s lunchboxes.

“We are seeing more families that are having a more difficult time paying off their child’s lunch accounts,” said Sue Hamm, food service director for the Jefferson school system.

Jefferson isn’t the only school system having troubles with students not having enough money in their accounts to pay for their lunches. The Hall County school system’s food service staff are also seeing hundreds of student lunch accounts in arrears.

If students don’t have the money in their account to pay for their meal, and if they didn’t bring a lunch from home, in most cases students are able to charge a lunch to their account.

“We offer a peanut butter sandwich, fruit and milk free of charge to those students that do not have lunch money or have reached their charge maximum,” Hamm said.

According to Cookie Palmer, Hall’s nutrition director, an alternative lunch is also available to Hall County students.

“At the elementary school level, there is no change in the meal,” Palmer said. “In middle school, once a student reaches the maximum charge amount that is set by their principal, they are offered a fruit, vegetable and milk, but sometimes the students refuse it. At the high school level, if they don’t have money for their lunch, they don’t get to eat.”

With fewer students being able to pay for their lunches, both school systems are reporting seeing more families apply for free and reduced lunch.

Free and reduced-price lunches are offered to eligible students through a federally funded program. To be eligible for a free lunch, students must be a part of a household whose income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that would mean a annual income at or less than $27,563.

Reduced-price lunches are available to households whose income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. If a family has four members, the total annual income for the household would need to be less than or equal to $39,220.

“We have been seeing more families requesting free- and reduced-lunch applications pretty much all year,” said Palmer.

Once a student is approved for the free- and reduced-lunch program, their eligibility remains active for the remainder of the school year and the first 30 days of the next school year; after that time, a new application has to be filled out.

Temporary approval for the program is also available for families who may have been ineligible due to their income, but who are facing temporary set backs like lay offs and minor injuries that prevent wage earners from working.

Applications for free and reduced lunches are available at each school.

Children of households that receive TANF or assistance through the Food Stamp Program, or who are homeless are automatically eligible for a free lunch, however an application still must be filled out.

“We are making every effort to let families knows that the free and reduced program is available to them if they need assistance,” said Hamm.

“We want to make sure all students have access to a complete, healthy meal so they can make the most out of their time in the classroom.”



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