Garner Cleveland Record

School lunch program illustrates broader need

Part of being an International Baccalaureate school means Smith Magnet Elementary works to promote global citizenship.

As part of that, the school Thursday held its annual Walk for Hunger, an event in which students, teachers and former teachers work to raise money for Heifer International to combat global hunger.

Hungers, however, can be an issue much closer to home.

Smith, like many schools in the Wake County Public School System, has a majority of its students in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. The program has seen an increase in use since 2008, and despite the somewhat uptick in the economy, figures remain well above pre-recession levels.

“With the economy, the free and reduced numbers have changed dramatically,” said North Garner Middle School principal Greg Butler, whose school also has a majority that participatesUSE ACTUAL PERCENTAGE IF POSSIBLE. “There’s a lot of families that are on it now that weren’t on it in the past, and a lot of it is due to underemployment and unemployment.”

The problem isn’t new; the program has been around for decades. But the needs for the program have increased in recent years.

And while the program helps take care of children at school, however, its need indicates the struggle some students face at home, and those issues can carry into the classroom and affect future college or economic opportunities.

“Since 2008, our population of children eligible for the program has really grown, people who had nice incomes all the sudden had no income,” said Marilyn Moody, WCPSS director of child nutrition services.

Administrators call keeping children fed crucial.

“If your students aren’t eating breakfast or lunch, they’re squirming, head down, not working, so it’s definitely necessary,” said Anne Pauls, an assistant principal at Smith.

Outside of the broad data, schools typically know little about students’ situations at home. More than a third of the roughly 153,300 students in the WCPSS system qualify for the program paid for by federal funds and given on a per-qualifying meal basis. No state or county money pays for the meals.

But teachers and administrators don’t know who receives help. Students have an ID number they give when it’s time to pay, and that PIN is linked to their status so cafeteria workers know what to charge.

“It’s honestly very private,” Pauls said. “We don’t talk about it in school, the students don’t really understand.”

Moody said it is not unlike running any restaurant. Money comes from students paying for meals as well as the federal government, and she has to make the math work.

There are also nutrition requirements, which have evolved over the years.

“We agree to take their money, so we agree to play by their rules,” Moody said.

But most of a child’s meals come from outside of school. Schools don’t officially take a role, but some partner with local charities in programs such as the Raleigh Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s BackPack Buddies program, which serves 1,762 children at 55 schools Triangle-wide.

Other assistance is less formal. Butler said teachers try to take note when students aren’t eating lunch. He said the school also has a social worker that does a good job working in concert with the counselor.

Wasted crops and minds

Free and reduced lunch wasn’t even about helping kids learn. At least not entirely.

Though government school food programs had previously existed, today’s more comprehensive federal program started with Harry S. Truman signing the National School Lunch Act of 1946.

The assistance was federalized because many young men had been rejected for service in World War II because of nutrition-related health problems. On top of that, farmers at the time had large crop surpluses, much of it going to waste. During the Depression, crops were destroyed in an effort to raise prices so farming would become profitable again. The National School Lunch Act built upon those efforts.

Also, there was the classroom issue.

“Common sense has told us all along that hungry children do not learn well,” said Moody.

Moody has seen the need for the program grow since the 2008 recession. The job is made more complicated since she has to fight another issue on the other end of the hunger scale: rising childhood obesity.

“We are really caught between two social ills,” Moody said. “We’ve got both extremes we’re trying to address with one lunch.”

Over the decades the rules have shifted; breakfast has been provided since the 1960s, and nutrition requirements have been adjusted to ensure a standard of healthiness in the meals

Moody noted that some worry about fraud since the system does not require proof of income. But Moody said about 30,000 of the 56,750 students using the program pre-qualify by being part of other government assistance programs, and added that occasional audits indicate that fraud is rare.

“We take criticism that some could enter the program fraudulently,” Moody said. “Very, very seldom is there a problem.”

This year, she said, a randomly-selected 1.5 percent of applicants resulted in 25 families being moved from some sort of free or reduced status to paid, and another 18 that didn’t respond were also removed from the program. Most errors, Moody said, came from mistakes such as parents writing net pay rather than gross.