About half of Marion County’s students qualify to receive free or reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch program, but only about 70 percent are taking advantage of the program, according to Susie Hawkins, coordinator of child nutrition for the county.

That not only means that some parents are placing an additional financial burden on themselves, but that the county isn’t receiving all it could in federal funds.

“We increase revenue in one of three ways. We either serve more kids; we have more kids who qualify for free meals, which means we get more federal money; or we do more local collection," Hawkins told the Marion County Board of Education at a recent meeting.

The county was reimbursed $1.5 million for the 2004-2005 school year. That number has been rising in recent years, Hawkins said.

“We’re looking at numbers this year. We’re over $1.6 million (in reimbursement). The point is, the more meals we serve, the more people you have qualified for free and reduced, the more federal money that comes in,” she said. “The more federal money you have coming in, the less local money it takes.”

She said that while enrollment in the county went down, percentage of needy, that’s the students who qualify for free and reduced meals, is up slightly this past year. Still, not as many students are taking advantage of the program that could.

Children whose parents’ income is below 130 percent of poverty are eligible for free meals; reduced-price meals are available for children whose parents’ income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of poverty, according to federal guidelines.

For example, a family with three children could earn up to $21,000 and qualify for free lunches or up to $30,000 and qualify for reduced-price lunches.

Another issue the county is facing is its breakfast program. Hawkins told the board that most students, about 80 percent, who could receive free breakfast aren’t taking advantage of it and somewhat paradoxically, the more children they serve, the more they can afford to serve.

“If you have a school that’s like 60 percent free and we could feed 80 percent of those free kids, we could cover the cost of breakfast for everybody in that school because the reimbursement is high enough,” Hawkins said.

“We increased from 20 to 22 percent of our kids eating breakfast. That sounds wonderful, but when you go back to the fact that almost 50 percent of our kids qualify for free, why aren’t we serving all of those kids free breakfast?”

She said the county has several elementary schools where 60 to 70 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. But every year, they face difficulty in getting parents to sign up for the program.

“What tends to happen is that I have families that don’t fill out applications. They charge, charge, charge. Then when they get a delinquent account and they owe $40 or $50, they fill out an application and then they qualify,” Hawkins said.

But that means the county is out that $40 or $50, because once a family qualifies for the school lunch program, they don’t try to collect the outstanding debt. In addition to eating the loss, they’re out several months of federal reimbursement.

For some parents, the reason for not signing up for the program is a matter of pride.

“I’ve had parents call me and say, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ and I say, ‘Why?’ They say, ‘Because I don’t need the handout.’ I say, ‘Whoa, this is not a handout,’” Hawkins said.

She tries to explain that county receives $2.70 from the federal government for every free meal served, as compared to about 30 cents on regular-priced meals. Add in lost money and collection costs for parents who have trouble paying, and the benefits of the National School Lunch Program for the entire school system become obvious.

The county is currently trying to collect on a little more than $10,000 in outstanding lunch bills from parents, some of whom have moved out of the county. That number is down significantly from just a few years ago, according to Superintendent James Phares. He said in July of 2003, the county was owed $48,000 from parents for lunches.

Board president Michael Welty said it might be time to rethink the approach when it comes to getting parents to sign up for the program. Legally, the county can’t offer parents any incentive to sign up other than relief from an additional financial burden.

And while Hawkins said she appeals to parents for the good of the county when they’re hesitant to sign up, board member the Rev. James Saunders didn’t like the approach of telling parents that their poverty would help the school system.

“When we make the statement that you’re poor and you’re going to apply for it and we get more money, that’s a bad statement,” he said. “There’s a pride factor. … When I was growing up, I was one of the poor people who had to have a token (for a free lunch). I can still remember that teacher saying, ‘OK, Saunders, come up and get your token.’ And I had to get up in front of all those kids. It was embarrassing,” he said.

Saunders and Hawkins agreed that the county has come along way in terms of privacy and confidentiality since then.

”We work very hard. ... It shouldn’t be very obvious (which students are in the program). We do everything we can to keep it confidential,” she said.

E-mail Justin McLaughlin at jmclaughlin@timeswv.com.

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