New income guidelines for free and reduced-lunch program

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More families may qualify for free- or reduced-priced school lunches this year under new guidelines announced last week by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture program provides free or reduced-cost school meals to students whose families meet certain income eligibility standards. The federal government subsidizes the meals by paying school systems for every eligible meal they serve.

Families living at 130 percent of the federal poverty line or below qualify for free meals. For a family of four, the cutoff is $30,165, compared with $29,965 last year. Families living between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line qualify for reduced-price meals. A family of four living on $43,568 or less will be eligible for reduced-price meals, up from $42,643 the previous year. A reduced-price lunch is priced at 40 cents or less.

In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools, more than half of students fall into one of those categories.

During the 2012-13 school year, more than 55 percent of students in Forsyth County public schools received free- or reduced-price meals. The number is highest in the elementary schools, where more than 60 percent of students received subsidized meals last year. The district offers both lunch and breakfast. Some schools also offer after-school snacks during special programming.

Families have through the first month of school to apply, so numbers for this school year are not available yet, said Theo Helm, director of marketing and communications. The percentage of families qualifying for the program has been on the rise, though, over the past six years. During the 2007-08 school year, less than 48 percent of students were enrolled in the program.

“It’s gone up steadily,” Helm said.

The percent of students participating in the free- and reduced-price meal program varies widely from school to school. Just 11 percent of students at the Downtown School pay less than full price for meals. At North Hills Elementary, nearly all students receive free meals.

“We know the majority of the school is served by free- and reduced-lunch,” said Karen Morning Roseboro, principal at North Hills. “It’s so important, especially in this area, to be able to feed children first thing in morning through the free breakfast program.

“If children are hungry, they’re not able to concentrate on their academics.”

Morning Roseboro said that funding through the federal program is essential to her school, where hunger is often just one of the many obstacles students are facing. For some students, the meals they get at school might be the only ones they eat, she said.

Research has shown that eating habits affect student performance. A 2005 study revealed that the reading and math skills of food-insecure children entering kindergarten developed significantly more slowly than other children.

“It’s not surprising to find that research indicates children who are hungry have difficulty learning and do not perform as well in the classroom,” State Superintendent June Atkinson said in a news release. “Hunger should never be an impediment to academic success.”