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In the crowded lunchrooms of Marion County's schools, there's a quiet but telling sign that the economy is taking a toll on local families.
Sixty percent of students are signed up for free or reduced lunches, a record high for the district.
That number is even higher for two of the district's elementary schools, Glasscock and Lebanon Elementary, which both have a 75 percent free and reduced lunch population.
It's a trend schools are experiencing countrywide with millions of children receiving free or low-cost meals. Many of these students have never been eligible before, but are now because their parents have lost their jobs or homes during the economic crisis. All 50 states have shown increases in the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches, according to the Department of Agriculture.
But, it's not just the numbers that tell the story.
It's the students' appetites.
"They're hungry," Anna Fenwick, lunchroom manager at West Marion Elementary School, said. "It's sad. When I see them piling their plate up I think, do they know this will be their last meal until they come back to school tomorrow?"
Fenwick has worked in lunchrooms for 12 years throughout the district, and has been at West Marion Elementary for the past six years. She said the amount of food that used to feed students isn't nearly enough to feed them now.
"It's amazing the food that we fixed even three years ago, we've had to almost double," she said.
For example, Fenwick said she can remember when the lunchroom staff would only have to fix eight pounds of peas, but now they sometimes have to fix up to 28 pounds.
"They are eating them now," Fenwick said.
And the number of students eating breakfast has steadily increased. At West Marion, they serve an average of 250 kids breakfast.
"This year has been unreal," Fenwick said.
She said she's noticed a huge change in the students eating behaviors during the past several years, and the economy has to be a contributing factor.
"I've noticed some kids are eating foods now that before they would pass by," Fenwick said. "I think they appreciate more now."
For a child to qualify for free meals, his or her family's income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, or $29,055 for a family of four. Children who meet the definition of "migrant" automatically qualify for free meals.
Reduced-price meals (30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch) go to households between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line, an income no higher than $41,348 for a family of four.
And while more and more families are finding themselves falling in that range, not all of them are applying for free or reduced lunches. According to Sally Hancock, who has been the lunchroom manager at Marion County High School for the past 25 years, not all of the children that are eligible for the program are being signed up. Before working at MCHS, she was the lunchroom manager at Lebanon Elementary School. And she became very aware of the children who were receiving free or reduced lunches. After transitioning to the high school, she eventually saw some of those same students, but they were not signing up for free or reduced lunch.
"The students would not turn in the applications," Hancock said. "It wasn't cool."
One way the district has been able to combat that problem is by having a family application. Parents only have to fill out one application, even if they have children at all levels of school.
"The one application has helped tremendously," Hancock said.
And, the district makes sure students aren't singled out if they receive free or reduced lunch. They have a pin number, just like every other student.
One thing Hancock wishes she could improve at MCHS is the number of students who eat breakfast. At the elementary level, there were many children who ate breakfast, but that doesn't carry over to the high school, she said. While she serves more than 800 lunches, she only serves approximately 140 breakfasts.
"That was another big shock," she said. "We average about 141 breakfasts out of 963 kids."
Initially, Hancock said she was distraught about the low number of students eating breakfast. So, she conducted a survey to find out why.
The answer was pretty simple.
"They'd rather sleep than eat," she said.
Students have to arrive earlier to school to eat breakfast, and apparently their sleep is more important, she said.
Yet, district officials know that students with empty stomachs don't learn well.
"It is well documented that basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter must be satisfied before learning becomes a priority for students or adults," Superintendent Chuck Hamilton said. "We value the work of our food service personnel to provide nutritious meals to our students. Healthy, satisfied students perform better academically and socially."
The role of the school lunchroom staff should never be overlooked, according to Assistant Superintendent Taylora Schlosser.
"They provide a hot, nutritious meal first thing in the morning and in the middle of the day," she said. "They have one of the most important jobs there is."
Marion County Public Schools, with the help of Central Kentucky Community Action, participate in the Feeding America BackPack Program. The program has been helping children for the past 15 years get nutritious and easy-to-prepare food they need during the course of the weekend. Bags of food are distributed at the end of the week to approximately 125 children countywide and nearly 230,000 children statewide every year.
According to Martha Ann Mattingly, all of the money that supports the BackPack Program comes from community donations.
The directors of the school Family Resource and Youth Service Centers identify the children who need the program's assistance. With the parents' permission, students are given a bag of food on Fridays. During longer breaks, they may be given several bags. The bag includes non-perishable foods such as cereal, canned fruit, vegetables, soups, etc.
The program costs $80 per child, Mattingly said. That cost will be increased to $100 this year, she said.
FREE AND REDUCED LUNCH BREAKDOWN BY SCHOOL
SCHOOLS Enrollment Free Reduced Percentage of free & reduced
CES 252 113 16 51.2 percent
GES 456 302 39 74.8 percent
SCMS 290 117 46 56.2 percent
WMES 452 212 54 58.9 percent
LES 405 255 41 73.1 percent
LMS 394 216 41 65.2 percent
MCHS 966 384 111 51.2 percent
TOTAL 3,223 1,612 348 60.6 percent
* As of Dec. 31, 2011.
MCPS FREE AND REDUCED LUNCH TRENDS
Year Free Reduced Percentage of free and reduced
1994-1995 1,082 326 48 percent
2001-2002 1,184 499 54.4 percent
2008-2009 1,348 428 55 percent
2010-2011 1,596 348 60.6 percent
*Information provided by the Department of Education.