COLUMBIA, SC — When a snow and ice storm hit South Carolina in January 2011, schools around the Midlands were forced to shut down.
But after several days of being closed, Richland 1 decided to reopen earlier than most, in part because school leaders knew how important lunch programs had become to some of the students, said Tracy Dixon, supervisor of business operations with the district’s office of student nutrition services.
“Our superintendent said, ‘I know what they ate when they left, but I don’t know what they had to eat while they were out,” she said.
Richland 1, Dixon said, has seen an increase in the number of students enrolled in free or reduced price school meal programs — an indicator of poverty.
But the district is not alone.
A recent analysis of eligibility data for the past five years by The State newspaper found that more Midlands public school students are receiving free or reduced price meals than ever before.
From 2007-12, total meal program enrollment among the eight public school districts in Richland, Lexington and Kershaw counties has grown from 49,149 to 57,446, a 16 percent increase. That growth mirrors a national trend, as more U.S. families facing job losses and tough economic times turn to the federal program for help.
“We (have seen) a number of families apply who have never applied before, not so much this year, but in 2008 to 2009 and 2010 to 2011 (school years),” Dixon said.
While districts like Richland 1, in the Columbia city core, traditionally have higher meal program enrollments in their schools, even affluent districts like Lexington 1, Richland 2 and Lexington-Richland 5 have seen increases.
In Richland 1 — where some schools have more than 90 percent of students enrolled in free or reduced meal programs — enrollment over the five-year period grew from 16,229 to 16,278, data show. Combined enrollment for Lexington 1, Richland 2 and Lexington-Richland 5 grew from 19,148 to 26,052.
The data also suggest that while poorer families have remained poor, those once considered financially stable, primarily in suburban areas, are seeing some struggles in these economic times.
Meals are critical to children
Passed in 1946, the National School Lunch Act was created to support commodity prices after World War II and ensure that future military draftees were physically fit. The program provided food to school-age children while reducing farm surpluses.
Today, the program serves low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million American schoolchildren at a cost of $11.1 billion.
These meal programs — which may now include breakfast, snacks, lunch and after-school meals — are critical for children in need, educators say. Studies show that children in poverty, who may not have regular meals, have a harder time concentrating and learning in class.
According to an analysis released in 2011 by The New York Times, the number of students receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million in 2010, up from 18 million in 2007. All 50 states have shown increases, the analysis found.
Those numbers have increased in recent years, experts affiliated with the study said, in part due to a lagging economy, with tighter family finances and one or both parents out of jobs.
In South Carolina, 58 percent of the state’s schoolchildren are enrolled in free or reduced lunch programs, according to officials with the state Department of Education.
Students qualify on the basis of family income. Families of four who earn $29,965 a year or less, or 130 percent of the federally designated poverty level, are eligible for free breakfast and lunch. Families of four who earn incomes above that, but below $42,643 a year, or between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level, are eligible for reduced-price meals.
Both numbers, officials say, are on the rise in South Carolina.
“The school lunch program (increases) are a reflection of the state of the economy,” said state Department of Education spokesman Jay W. Ragley. “There are more folks out of work and that does lead to more people enrolled in the programs.”
Bad economy ‘affects everyone’
Despite a per capita income that is slightly higher than the national average, Lexington County has seen its share of fallout from the economy.
Among some of the county’s smaller districts, for example, Lexington 2’s five-year meal program enrollment has grown from 4,694 to 5,865, while Lexington 4’s has grown from 2,431 to 2,501, the data show.
Lexington 2 superintendent Jim Hinton says the economy is the “number one factor” for increases in free and reduced lunch numbers in his district.
“Lexington is like most communities,” he said. “It’s very diverse. We have folks from all walks of life and when the economy is bad, it affects everyone no matter what your status is.”
The district, like others in the Midlands, has seen double-digit percentage point increases at some of its schools. Claude A. Taylor Elementary in Cayce, for example, has increased by about 20 percentage points since 2007, with 85 percent of its students enrolled in meal programs in 2011-12, data show.
Some other Lexington 2 schools, such as Airport High, tend to have transient populations, Hinton said. Airport has seen a 17 percentage point increase since 2007, with about 56 percent of students enrolled in meal programs in the 2011-12 school year, data show.
Many Midlands school officials say families moving from school to school, or in and out of an area altogether, can often signal financial instability.
Some Richland 1 schools tend to have a transient student population, Dixon said. That has, in part, prompted the district to begin tracking data not just once or twice a year, as other districts do, but monthly. Through the district’s direct certification process, it can match students by zip code, name, birth date and a number of other factors, with those receiving assistance through the state Department of Social Services. This allows the district to get a more up-to-date, accurate picture of what student needs are in each school, Dixon said.
“We already know that we have a large number of families that need assistance, but you can see that from the demographics,” she said.
Of the 48 schools in Richland 1, 18 have more than 90 percent of their students enrolled in free or reduced lunch programs, Dixon said.
“Few of our schools have less than 50 percent,” she said.
In Richland 2, schools such as Spring Valley High, Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary and Rice Creek Elementary, had double-digit percentage point increases in meal enrollment over the past five years.
But the increases aren’t isolated to any of the district’s more suburban areas, said Fred McDaniel, chief planning officer for Richland 2.
“It’s across the entire system,” he said. “We’ve gone back 20 years and know it’s a significant increase.”
With many families struggling in a difficult economy, Midlands school leaders say longtime initiatives like the national school lunch program are critical.
“We’re glad that there is a program out there to help families,” Hinton said. “Nutrition is very important in a child’s development, not only from a physical standpoint but in their ability to learn as well.”
In addition to the national program, many districts work in tandem with community organizations, churches, county agencies, food banks and other nonprofits to help families in need. Programs such as the backpack program, in which students take home food for the weekend, are extremely beneficial, Hinton and Dixon said.
“Lexington is a great place to work, a great place to live and a great place to grow up and send your kids to school,” Hinton said. “We’re fortunate to have the support that we have from the community.”
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.