Changes in the free and reduced lunch program in the state may save parents time and money, and could make the process more private and efficient with the addition of new features.
The income-level brackets that spell out how much families are allowed to bring home while still qualifying for the program, are set to expand in the upcoming school year. Based on the number of members of a household, the OK’ed amount has increased significantly for each additional member of the family, which also now includes foster children.
Students whose families use food stamps, are considered homeless or are in foster care, among several other situational circumstances, are automatically eligible for free lunch, Child Nutrition Director Byron Sackett told the Times-News earlier this month.
“In the past, being homeless meant actually living on the street,” he said. “But now, there are situations where parents aren’t the primary owner of the home or other situations where the child has a place to stay but is still considered to be homeless.”
Victims of natural disasters are also recognized through the direct certification program that is designed to guarantee certain students free meals at school.
In previous years, Sackett has witnessed families who mis-filed their paperwork having to wait three to five weeks before their child was eligible.
Reading the paperwork carefully and correctly and making sure everything is signed are critical, Sackett warns.
As an added security feature, parents are now only required to fill out the last four digits of Social Security numbers.
Aside from Sackett and his nutrition team’s efforts to help parents feed their children at lunchtime, his passion lies in the free breakfast program. He spearheaded the initiative about two years ago, convincing the county to put our money where our mouths are, literally.
Every student in Lincoln County is offered free breakfast, regardless of their parents’ income.
“Getting free breakfast isn’t an economic issue,” Sackett said. “Sometimes situations arise where both parents are working, and the child doesn’t get to eat breakfast. We always say how important breakfast is; well, it’s time for us to do something about it.”
In 2006, the Boston Globe did a study involving the 2003-2004 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test in elementary schools across the state. The study found that schools where 80 to 100 percent of students ate breakfast saw higher scores.
Statistics cite benefits of eating the first meal of the day, such as decreased risk of Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and later in life obesity, as well as more focus and other educational benefits in the classroom as well.
Prior to the inception of breakfast for every county child, the county child nutrition team was often approached by teachers who were asking for morning meals on test days.
“They said the breakfast would help the students perform better, and we thought, ‘Well, what about the rest of the year?’ ” Sackett asked.
Busy work schedules, and a change in family dynamic are factors in children waking up and heading to school with empty stomachs, Sackett said, “families aren’t just sitting down and eating meals together much anymore.”
Recently, local counties have been visiting Lincoln County to observe how the program has been holding up here. Neighboring areas may start their own breakfast programs after close review of the success, or not, of Sackett’s initiative.
As the 2011-2012 school year came to a close, child nutrition members started to wonder what would happen for children who rely on the free breakfast and lunch programs during the summer.
Three years ago, they kicked off a summer feeding program that they will hold this year at Betty Ross Park, 800 Madison St. in Lincolnton. Children up to 18 years old will be able to grab lunch between 11:50 a.m. and 12:25 p.m. at the park, no information needed.
Last year, the team estimates to have fed up to 18,000 children, and are striving for 20,000 this year.
“Why would we work so hard to feed these kids during the year and then take the summer off?” Byron said.
Complimentary breakfast will be offered at 25 sites across the county over the next few months, including at Without Walls Freedom Center, 118 Colonial Village Dr. in Lincolnton.
Those hosting camps or large gatherings that need food for the participating children are welcome to contact the child nutrition department for help meeting those needs.
For more information on free and reduced lunch and summer feeding hours and locations, call (704) 736-4301.