Schools address students’ hunger issues
J.C. Lyell, Staff Writer, [email protected]
The Indiana Dept. of Education has released this year’s income eligibility guidelines for free and reduced-price meals at state schools.
Under the guidelines, a child with a household size of one is eligible for reduced-price meals if the household’s income is at or below $23,107 a year, and free meals if it is at or below $16,237 per year.
The threshold for reduced-price meals increases by $8,177 a year for each addition to household size, and for free meals it increases by $5,746 per year.
Last year’s figures started at $22,459 per year for reduced-price meals, increasing by $7,992 annually with each additional person in the house and $15,782 a year for free meals increasing by $5,616 per year for each addition to household size.
Free and reduced-price meal guidelines are based on the federal poverty guidelines, with those earning 185% or less of the poverty line eligible for reduced price and those earning 130% or less eligible for free meals.
While local schools are still processing students’ applications for free and reduced meals, officials at the South Harrison Community School Corp. have noted a decline in the total percentage of children taking part in the program.
Dr. Mark Eastridge, superintendent of the corporation, said the ratio of students receiving free and reduced-price meals has mostly remained constant around 50% to 51% through recent years. This year, however, that figure has ticked down to about 49%, he estimated.
“I think it’s in part because we have a fairly robust economy nationally and here in Indiana,” Eastridge said. “Some folks believe it’s reflective of that.”
Despite South Harrison’s numbers, the county’s two other public school corporations haven’t seen the same improvement.
Dr. Lance Richards, superintendent at North Harrison Community School Corp., said it’s too soon to tell exactly what percentage of students will participate in the free and reduced lunch program this year, but he estimated it will fall somewhere between 40% and 50%. He said he anticipates it will increase from last year’s rate of 47%.
“We have been inching upwards the entire time (21 years) I’ve been here at the corporation,” he said.
Richards said recent years have seen just above 50% of Morgan Elementary School students and just below 50% of North Harrison Elementary School students receiving free or reduced-price meals.
“Our elementary (schools) tend to have a higher participation rate,” he said.
That could be because parents of younger children struggle more economically than the somewhat more experienced parents of older students, Richards said, or maybe the older students and their parents aren’t as motivated to file and turn in the application needed for the program.
At Lanesville Community School Corp., superintendent and high school principal Steve Morris said the corporation is looking at about a 19% participation rate this year.
“It seems like the percentage of students on free and reduced (price) lunch has increased,” he said, adding that in the last three or four years the number has climbed up from 15%.
This was one of the factors administrators considered when they recently decided Lanesville’s schools need a breakfast program.
Some students might not have the time or resources at home to get breakfast, Morris said, so now the schools’ cafeteria plans to start serving breakfast food in the mornings in the second quarter of this semester.
Morris said when students are hungry, it’s hard to expect them to focus on learning.
Richards agreed with that point.
“The reality for us is this: We can’t teach a hungry child,” he said. “If they’re hungry, the only thing on their mind is just that ‘I’m hungry’.”
Many area organizations work to alleviate hunger in Harrison County schools, such as Louisville-based Dare to Care, which runs a program called “Backpack Buddies” at Corydon Elementary School. Thanks to the program, up to 50 participating children are sent home with backpacks full of food each week.
Teachers can recommend students for the program based on their observations of classroom behaviors. Some signs that a child may need more food are frequent complaining about head or stomach aches or taking food from others.
Dare to Care purchases the items in the backpacks to ensure that children get nutritious offerings on a consistent basis. Some foods children receive include fresh fruit, instant oatmeal, ready-to-eat entrees and vegetable or fruit cups.
Cheryl Lone, a school counselor at Corydon Elementary School, coordinates the program. She said it’s hard to watch a student who participates in the program age up to the intermediate school, where they will no longer be eligible.
Food insecurity problems don’t just disappear after third grade, she said, so she and school administrators have introduced a new solution this year: a school pantry, which will supplement the Backpack Buddies program.
“As a community, we realize there are kids out there going hungry,” Lone said.
She said feeding hungry students is not a one-day fix, but a consistent issue for some.
The pantry, located at Corydon Central High School but available for all SHCSC students, will be open on Thursdays after school, between 3:30 and 4:30 starting tomorrow.
Lone said the pantry is open for any student who says they have a need for it, and parents can contact the front office of their child’s school to provide some demographic information necessary to participate in the program.
She said there will be more protein options, including frozen and fresh meals, in the pantry than are usually in the Backpack Buddies program.
For more information about food and meal programs available for students, contact your child’s school corporation’s administrative offices.