On the Frontline of Child Hunger: Federal Free and Reduced Meals Program

school lunchAll children deserve to be fed and ready to learn when they arrive to school, thus ensuring they receive a quality education.

The Free and Reduced lunch program is an integral part of making sure all children are fed at school, and is one answer in helping to end child hunger.

All public and nonprofit private schools (regardless of tuition) and all residential child care institutions can participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, provided by the USDA. To qualify for a reduced priced breakfast & lunch a family of 4 makes $44,863 or less, (or between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty line) and to qualify for a free breakfast & lunch a family of 4 makes $31,525 or less (below 130 percent of poverty line)

The needs are great, as 55% of students attending Buncombe County and Asheville City schools are recipients of this federal feeding program.

What Happens to Hungry Students in Summer?

In an effort to address increased food insecurity during the summer months when students no longer receive the free and reduced meals, Buncombe County Nutrition Director Lisa Payne introduced the Super Summer Meals program to Buncombe County. Super Summer Meals program is a federally-funded, state-administered program, which reimburses providers who serve breakfast and/or lunch to children and teens in low-income areas at no charge during the summer months.

Currently in its fourth year, the Buncombe County Super Summer Meals program distributed 72,309 meals throughout the community in the summer of 2015- a 40% increase from the program’s first year.

“It is an honor and privilege to serve the children of Buncombe County nutritious meals year round,” says Lisa Payne, School Nutrition Director for Buncombe County Schools. “We work hard to ensure that food insecurity does not exist in our School System and in our County.   The Summer Meals program supplements meals for children ages 2-18 during the summer months, a time when food insecurity could be a huge problem for our community.  We are proud to support all of our families and assist them in their successes through proper nutrition.”

How School Meals Helped Cindy’s Family Become Stable

Cindy2Cindy knows first-hand how important this program is in helping to make sure her children are fed and ready to learn. In 2009 her family moved to Asheville from D.C. to open their own business. Eight months later, the business deal fell through and they had no jobs, no savings, and no supports. “Everything went south financially and we took any and all jobs we could find. Our income for both of us working full-time was only $13,000. But I knew my girls were getting two meals a day at school through the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program.”

Cindy and her children are not alone.  In fact, over 21 million students, or 51% of our nation’s students, eat free and reduced-price meals throughout the school year. With 2 children enrolled in this program, Cindy’s family was able to save over $1,054.80 annually, which helped keep a roof over their heads.

Years later, as her income gradually raised Cindy remembers when her girls no longer needed to receive free breakfast and lunch, and instead received the reduced rate for their meals. At 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch at the reduced rates, her family was still able to stretch their food dollar and build financial security. “We could put $40 into the girl’s lunch account and that would last them for months.”

Things are looking up for Cindy and her family, but she admits that they didn’t get here on their own. “I’d like to say that we were able to pull ourselves out of this without any help, but that wouldn’t be true. We got help from family, non-profits and programs like the Free & Reduced meals program.”

She goes on to say, “This program changes lives. Our legislators shouldn’t talk about how to cut funding on programs like this as much as how to improve it. Families that need help are already pinching pennies and they don’t have any more pennies to pinch.”