Raleigh, N.C. — Wake and Durham public schools recorded their highest-ever percentage of students on free and reduced-price meals this past year.
More than 45,000 Wake students, or 32 percent, get their lunches and no or reduced cost. Durham Public Schools reported 57 percent of its students taking part in the program this past year.
Cumberland County school leaders reported 54 percent.
“It has grown as we’ve seen the downturn in the economy and families are struggling,” said Wake schools Nutrition Services Director Marilyn Moody. “We’ve been inundated with first-time families.”
If the household income is less than 130 percent of poverty, based on the size of the household, children may receive free meals. Children can get low-cost meals if the household income is between 131 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level for the household size.
Single mother Liz Thomas and her teenage daughter, Erica, were one of those first-time families. For months, Liz Thomas has been collecting unemployment and job rejections, forcing her to do something she had never done before – getting her daughter on a free breakfast and reduced lunch program.
“Sometimes you get so far down you have to ask for help once in awhile," she said.
If Thomas does not find a job soon, she says she'll have to enroll her daughter in the program again.
“At least I knew my daughter was being fed every day,” she said.
File cabinets at Wake’s Child Nutrition Services department are packed with tens of thousands of applications. About half of free and reduced-price lunch students are automatically certified through the Department of Health & Human Services, because their families are already receiving food stamps.
Child Nutrition Services then selects a random sample that must show proof of income. Guidelines are such that families making almost twice the poverty level could get reduced-price meals.
“It’s a working group of individuals stretched to make ends meet that we’re helping, not necessarily purely impoverished individuals,” Moody said.
Even in a high-median income county like Wake, advocates with the non-profit Action for Children North Carolina say it's no surprise free and reduced percentages are high.
“Young families are always the ones hardest hit by economic downturn. They are less educated, (have) less work experience (and) they lose their jobs first,” said Mandy Ableidinger, Action for Children N.C.’s director of policy.
Wake Schools rejected more than 1,000 applications for free and reduced-price lunch this past school year. A mass mailing of applications goes out when school starts, but families can apply at any time as their job situation changes.
Frequently Asked Questions: (courtesy of ncpublicschools.org)
1. Do I need to fill out a separate application for each child? No. Complete one Free and Reduced Price School Meals Application for all students in your household. We cannot approve an application that is not complete, so be sure to fill out all required information. Be sure to check the “no income” box if your child does not have his/her own income. Failing to check this box will delay the approval of your household application. Return the completed application to: [name, address, phone number].
2. Who can get free meals? Children in households receiving Food and Nutrition Services (FNS, formerly Food Stamps) benefits, or getting TANF automatically qualify for free meals. If the household income is less than 130% of poverty, based on the size of your household, children may receive free meals.
3. Can homeless, runaway or children of families get free meals? Please call [school, homeless liaison or migrant coordinator] to see if your child(ren) qualify, if you have not been informed that they will get free meals.
4. Who can get reduced-price meals? Your children can get low cost meals if your household income is between 131% and 185% of the Federal Poverty level for your household size.
5. Should I fill out an application if I got a letter this school year saying my children are approved for free meals? No, if you received a letter from the school stating your child has been directly certified for free meals, it is not necessary to complete an application for free or reduced price meals. Please read the letter you got carefully and follow the instructions. Call the school at [phone number] if you have questions.
6. I get WIC. Can my child(ren) get free meals? Children in households participating in WIC may be eligible for free or reduced price meals. Please fill out an application.
7. Will the information I give be checked? Yes, we may ask you to send written proof of your household income and size.
8. If I don’t qualify now, may I apply later? Yes. You may apply at any time during the school year if your household size goes up, income goes down, or if you start receiving Food and Nutrition Services (FNS, formerly Food Stamps) or getting TANF or other benefits. If you lose your job, your children may be able to get free or reduced price meals.
9. What if I disagree with the school’s decision about my application? You should talk to school officials. You also may ask for a hearing by calling or writing to: [name, address, phone number].
10. May I apply if someone in my household is not a U.S. citizen? Yes. You or your child(ren) do not have to be a U.S. citizen to qualify for free or reduced price meals.
11. Who should I include as members of my household? You must include all people living in your household, related or not (such as grandparents, other relatives, or friends). You must include yourself and all children who live with you. Remember, the number of people in your household can determine whether your child(ren) are eligible for free or reduced price meals. Children who are not enrolled in school should be listed on the application for free or reduced price meals.
12. What if my income is not always the same? List the amount of income that you normally get. For example, if you normally get $1,000 each month, but you missed some work last month and only got $900, put down that you get $1000 per month. If you normally get overtime, include it, but not if you get it only sometimes.
13. We are in the military, do we include our housing allowance as income? If your housing is part of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, do not include your housing allowance as income. All other allowances must be included in your gross income.