Program tied to other resources; still, some schools face challenges in enrolling students

In just a few days, kids across Western North Carolina will shuffle back to school with a fresh outlook and backpacks filled with school supplies. But a significant number of them will arrive without their lunch.

In area school districts, many students depend on the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-priced meals to students who qualify. In the Buncombe County school system, for example, 56 percent of all students received free and reduced-priced meals last year, according to figures from Buncombe County Schools’ Child Nutrition Services.

That percentage has grown from 32 percent in 2002, with similar increases observed in school districts throughout WNC.

A lack of sufficient food leads to health problems and has been linked to poor school performance and behavioral issues for students. But for some schools, the percentage of students that qualify for free or reduced-price meals is also connected to sources of school funding for a range of programs.

This funding includes Title I funds, a federal entitlement program also known as No Child Left Behind. Those funds are allocated to schools based on a variety of factors, including the free and reduced-lunch percentage for each school.

Under the Title I program, schools with a student body of at least 40 percent low-income students can use funds to operate school-wide free or reduced-meal programs. Schools with less than 40 percent can operate a program that targets eligible students. Schools that go below 40 percent in the program may lose school-wide Title I status.

Schools with higher rates of poverty can draw additional sources of meal funding, such as money from the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. That program helps provide healthy snack options for schools with greater than 70 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced meals.

In Buncombe County, 39 of the 43 public schools have more than 40 percent of the student body qualifying for free and reduced meals.

Anita Owenby, director of federal funding at Buncombe County Schools, said that the majority of Title I funding is used for personnel at qualifying schools. Buncombe County Schools uses Title I funds to pay for year-long tutoring, take-home books for elementary school students, a variety of reading intervention programs delivered by specialists and workshops for parents.

With Title I funding connected to the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price meals, child nutrition directors throughout the region said a primary challenge of providing healthy meals to students who need them is making sure eligible families apply. While some students automatically qualify for the program, others do not.

Stigma sometimes impedes meal programs

According to research by the New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project, older students are greatly underrepresented in free and reduced-price meal programs, since high school students may refuse to enroll due to a perceived stigma attached to the programs.

“I can say that, talking with school principals, I believe there is a stigma attached with receiving free meals,” said Laura Cabe, the child nutrition director for the Jackson County Public Schools district. “We try to be very discreet, but we want to do all we can to make sure students are getting healthy meals.”

In McDowell County, where the unemployment rate was 10.6 percent in June, the statewide trend of losing manufacturing jobs has contributed to a rise in the number of families qualifying for free and reduced-price meals, said Jon Haynes, child nutrition director for McDowell County Schools.

“This area has lost a tremendous amount of industry, so it’s harder and harder for parents to find good paying jobs,” he said.

Many of McDowell’s students are automatically enrolled in the free and reduced-price meal program through direct certification — that is, families receiving assistance, such as Food and Nutrition Services benefits (formerly known as food stamps) are automatically added to the program.

According to Haynes, automatic enrollment is widespread in McDowell County, where the percentage of students receiving meals is as high as it’s ever been. Among the nearly 7,000 students enrolled in the county as of June 2013, 67 percent of students qualified for the program.

School districts are required to send out a letter with every student at the beginning of the year encouraging them to apply. In addition, Haynes said, schools may also reach out to families under special circumstances, such as when a plant shuts down. He said that their efforts to reach out to parents who may qualify has made a difference.

“Everything is so much more confidential than it has been in the past,” he said. “I think that helps prideful parents who might qualify. I feel like we are closer than we’ve ever been to enrolling all of the students who need healthy meals.”

Yet some families in McDowell and other counties in the region might still slip through the cracks.

Lisa Payne, the child nutrition director for Buncombe County Schools, says it can be difficult to identify students who may be in need. In fact, school principals and other staff don’t have access to lists of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

“We are very guarded with that information,” Payne said. “We are ethically bound to not overtly identify students in need.”

On the other hand, her staff can reach out to students who may be in need. For example, students enrolled in a previous year will receive an automated call reminding them to reapply.

Beth Palien, child nutrition director at Asheville City Schools, said that about half of the students enrolled in the free and reduced-price meals program are directly enrolled without an application from parents.

Overall, 46 percent of all students at Asheville City Schools are enrolled in the program. According to Palien, 42 percent of the students receive free meals, and she believes that most families that qualify apply for the program.

Wide variance within local school systems

While those figures are for the entire Asheville school system, the percentages of students receiving free and reduced-price meals vary within the Asheville district. For example, 83 percent of students at Hall Fletcher Elementary are enrolled, as opposed to 40 percent of those at Isaac Dickson Elementary, 41 percent at Ira B. Jones Elementary and 42 percent at Asheville High School.

Schools that go below 40 percent in the program may lose school-wide Title I status. Still, “we try to promote [the meal program] at all levels, regardless of the school’s status,” said Charlie Glazener, executive director of community relations at Asheville City Schools.”It is required that we give all families the opportunity to apply.”

School funding aside, Palien said her primary objective is to deliver healthy meals to students who need them. And in addition to the task of enrolling students, new federal regulations require healthier choices.

“We work really hard to keep costs down, but the price of a meal has to pay for a lot of things,” she said. “Getting the most nutritious food with the money is one of our biggest challenges.”

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Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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  1. As a “reduced lunch” student, it was very embarrassing to pick up my lunch ticket from the asst. principal as he stood in the middle of the cafeteria handing them out each day. Students today are very fortunate to have an electronic lunch card – just like everyone else. I certainly hope that all eligible students will apply for the free/reduced meals as the stigma has been eliminated.

    As a Buncombe County school board member, I have supported healthy guidelines for the breakfast program and the elimination of unhealthy snacks sold at lunch time. Our Board can take steps to implement guidelines if the public demands it.