Federal Funds Feeding 8,500

Free- And Reduced-Price Lunches On The Rise In City, County Schools

Posted: October 12, 2013

First-graders eat lunch at Spotswood Elementary School on Thursday. At Spotswood, nearly every student — 408 out of 437 — qualifies for the free and reduced-price lunch program. (Photo Jason Lenhart)

HARRISONBURG — The number of students in the area receiving free- and reduced-price meals rose this year in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, with more than 8,500 local students now eligible for the discounted breakfasts and lunches.


In Virginia, 40.1 percent of schoolchildren, or 496,771 kids, qualified for free- or reduced-price meals in 2012-13, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Numbers for 2013-14 are not yet available.


The 73.4 percent of students in Harrisonburg City Public Schools eligible for the meal benefits for 2013-14 represents 3,952 of the division’s 5,380 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.


At Spotswood Elementary School, where the free- and reduced- price eligible rate is the highest in the division, nearly every student — 408 out of 437 — now qualifies for the federal assistance program.


In Rockingham County Public Schools, 4,631, or nearly 40 percent, of the division’s 11,876 students receive free- or reduced-price meals, based on federal guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for each meal served.


The city this year will receive $2.3 million for breakfasts and lunches served through the program, while Rockingham County will receive $2.7 million from the federal government for that purpose.


In a five-year period, the number of eligible students has increased by more than 600 in Rockingham County, while in the city, the number of students getting cheaper or free meals has increased by more than 930 in that time.


In Harrisonburg, each of the eight division schools has at least 60 percent of its students eligible for the meals. At one school, 93 percent of prekindergarten through fourth grade students aren’t required to pay full price for food.


The county’s 23 schools percentages fall between 25.2 percent and 60.7 percent, with 13 of the county’s 23 schools over last year’s statewide percentage of eligible kids.


While the percentages indicate that a significant number of Harrisonburg families — and some in particular areas of the county — may live near or below the poverty line, educators are adamant that the numbers themselves have no affect on education quality.


“We don’t see this at all as a barrier to learning,” Harrisonburg City Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner said. “We see this as a great opportunity to help make an important impact on children’s lives.”


The numbers do mean two things academically for divisions, though.


First, free- and reduced-price lunch percentages are used to determine eligibility for the Title I program.


Title I is a federal program that provides funding for schools where a certain number of students are considered to be living in poverty. All five city elementary schools and 12 of Rockingham County’s 15 elementary schools are eligible for Title I funds.


Second, the percentage is also used to determine the maximum sizes of kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. For divisions, that means the higher the percentage of students receiving free- and reduced price lunch, the lower the class sizes must be.


“[That] means we may have more classrooms than other school divisions, which means we have to pay for more teachers,” Kizner said. “We do realize there are [other] issues that we have to address such as making sure kids have access to books and reading and literature.”


Why Is It Growing?


Several factors are feeding the city’s numbers, Kizner believes.


“Especially in a down economy, the percentages tend to rise due to the number of people out of work,” he said.


City school officials also have noticed more low-income families are moving within the division’s boundaries, partly due to more affordable housing becoming available in Harrisonburg. That’s particularly the case off Port Republic Road in complexes that had been built as off-campus housing for James Madison University students.


Kizner said that the division has had to add additional buses to serve students living in that area, who attend Stone Spring Elementary School. That correlates, Kizner believes, with the jump in free- and reduced-price lunch eligible students the school saw this year.


“Some of the old off-campus [student] housing is now becoming more attractive for families; it’s affordable,” he said.


County Superintendent Carol Fenn said that free and reduced numbers have not had a significant impact on her division year to year.


“We do not see a wide fluctuation,” she said. “It does not impact the quality [of our schools].”


Household size and income are the factors that determine whether children are part of a household that is eligible for food assistance.


Despite a large influx of applications, federal requirements specify that school divisions verify only 3 percent of applications. The ones eligible to be checked must be identified as “error prone,” meaning they fall within a close margin of the cutoff incomes.


“Then we would take that pay stub … to verify income and compare it to what was on the application,” said Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition for city schools. “That’s all we are allowed to do because we are a federal program.”


Early and Rockingham County Food Service Director Gerald Lehman said they do not see a high rate of fabricated applications. More commonly, a student may be switched from free lunch to reduced lunch or vice versa due to a change in family income.


“When people sign an application they’re certifying that the information is accurate we are going to believe that,” Early said.


Who’s Eligible?


Federal Income Eligibility Guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture determine the household size and corresponding household income that make students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch.

» For a household of two, free meals will be offered to children if the maximum income does not exceed $20,163. A household of two could pull in between $20,163.01 and $28,694 to be eligible for reduced-price meals.


» For each additional family member, $5,226 is added onto the maximum income that makes families eligible for free meals and $7,437 is added to the amount for reduced-price meals.


» Families already on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families can automatically qualify for free- or reduced-price meals. SNAP was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program and TANF provides eligible families with a monthly cash payment for basic necessities.


Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or esharrer@dnronline.com

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