The number of children enrolled in free or reduced lunch programs in Faulkner County schools is higher this year, according to data compiled by the Arkansas Department of Education.
The National School Lunch Program is a federally-assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions.
Any child at a participating school can purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, while those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals.
Under the program, school districts and independent schools that choose to participate get cash subsidies and donated commodities from the United States Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve.
In return, the schools must serve lunches that meet federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. School food authorities can also be reimbursed for snacks served to children through age 18 in after-school educational or enrichment programs.
A lunch in the Conway school district is $2 for elementary students and $2.25 for secondary students; those eligible for reduced lunches pay only .30 for breakfast and .40 for lunch.
Nearly 47 percent of students enrolled in Conway Public Schools received free or reduced lunches last year. That number is much higher at Ida Burns, Theodore Jones and Florence Mattison Elementary schools, where as many as 75 percent of the students will receive free or reduced lunches in the 2013-14 school year.
Enrollment forms are included in welcome packages handed out at the beginning of each school year, but can be picked up at school offices and registered at any time throughout the school year.
School officials say students struggle with focus and lethargy when they start the day hungry. The benefit to the students is that the program provides them with two hot meals — breakfast and lunch — each day.
“The idea is that students who are hungry cannot learn nearly as well as those that come to school well-fed,” said Greg Murry, superintendent of Conway Public Schools. “This, of course, makes sense and we do our very best to make sure that qualifying parents complete the necessary application process so that their children can be served.”
And officials agree that many more students are eligible for the program than are enrolled. That happens for various reasons, they say. Some parents just don’t fill out the forms simply because they do not believe their income meets eligibility guidelines. Other parents don’t have income documentation on hand or are just too prideful.
“It’s important for people to know that we do completely protect their rights and privacy,” said Tammy Woosley, principal at Theodore Jones Elementary School. “Every child’s name is scanned as they go through the lunch line. Kids cannot tell which children are paying full price from those who receive free or reduced lunches.”
Woosley’s school serves breakfast, keeps snacks for children and sends food home to needy families each Friday.
In a 2012 interview with the Log Cabin Democrat, Woosley said Theodore Jones sent home 160 food bags in 2011 for needy families. At one point, about half of the school’s 410 students were in the cafeteria for breakfast — so many that older students had to be moved to a different location so everyone could eat
“It’s something we deal with every day,” Woosley said. “We work really hard to feed them because the research proves, when your belly is full, your mind works a little better.”
Woosley noted that childhood hunger in schools is, in part, related to poverty. “What is interesting about Conway is that there are different types of poverty and different types of needs. The number of children enrolled in the program is climbing because Arkansas, as a state, is in higher poverty at this time,” Woosley said. “And the number of children in poverty is climbing across the nation.”
Woosley said she encourages parents and guardians to return the enrollment forms regardless of whether they believe they are eligible for the program.
(Megan is a staff writer and can be reached by phone at 501-505-1277 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @LCDOnline, @meganpreynolds.)