More than 50 percent of students in the Bartow County and Cartersville City school systems were eligible for free and reduced meals during the last school year, but the new percentages are the lowest they've been in five years.
For fiscal year 2018, 56.1 percent of Bartow County's 13,536 students received free and reduced lunches, down from 61.3 percent of 14,200 students in FY 2014.
For Cartersville, 52.1 percent of its 4,528 students were on free and reduced meals last year, a drop from 56.4 percent of 4,202 students in FY 2014.
"The FRL rate has dropped for the past four years," Bartow School Nutrition Director Pam Blakeney said. "My assumption is that the county’s economy is improving. You may find trend forecasts by looking at economic development for this area. I have noticed industry growth in this area, which creates more jobs, and thus the need to subsidize school meals will decline."
Students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, based on their household's income, can buy lunch for 40 cents and breakfast for 30 cents — all students in the Bartow County system, however, receive breakfast for free.
"The free/reduced meal program is a wonderful program that allows many children to rely on our breakfast and lunch as consistent meals when they may otherwise not receive one," Christina Nichols, Cartersville's school nutrition director, said. "Each child's status as free/reduced/full pay is completely confidential, which we hope puts parents' minds at ease when applying for the program."
According to the Georgia Department of Education, the FRL rate for Bartow's 19 schools was 61.3 percent in FY 2014, but it has dropped every year since: 59.1 percent of 14,040 students in FY 2015, 58.6 percent of 13,794 students in FY 2016, 57.8 percent of 13,768 students in FY 2017 and 56.1 percent last year.
For Cartersville's four schools, the FY 2014 rate of 56.4 percent jumped slightly to 57.6 percent of 4,210 students in FY 2015, but the percentages have since decreased to 56 percent of 4,283 students in FY 2016, 54.8 percent of 4,402 students in FY 2017 and 52.1 percent — a decrease of 2.7 percent — last year.
"In researching this decrease last year, I looked at the subgroups of our free/reduced applications and discovered that each subgroup had stayed approximately the same," Nichols said. "The only decrease was seen in the subgroup comprised of students who qualify for free meals based on the fact that the family receives SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] — formerly food stamps. After talking with other districts' school nutrition directors, it seems as though this drop happened in multiple districts across the state."
Both school systems in Bartow County have, for the most part, remained well below the state's FRL rates: 62 percent in FY14, 62.2 percent in FY15, 62.3 percent in FY16, 61.7 percent in FY17 and 60.6 percent in FY18.
School districts submit their student-eligibility counts by category to the state every October, and the state then releases the FRL rates sometime after that, according to Blakeney.
Nichols said it's "hard to know for sure" if the downward trend will continue for her system.
"We will run our numbers this October [for FY 2019] and see where we are this year in terms of this trend," she said.
Students in households receiving benefits from Georgia SNAP or Georgia Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or who are foster children, participate in their school's Head Start program or are defined as homeless, runaway or migrant are directly identified by the state as eligible for free meals under the federal feeding program.
Children may qualify for free or reduced-price meals if their household’s income falls at or below the limits on the federal income eligibility guidelines, which are standard nationwide.
"National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs are regulated by federal law included in the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act," Blakeney said. "The federal poverty guidelines are used to calculate each year’s income guideline charts."
Nichols added the income requirements "change slightly each year based on the federal poverty level."
Parents or guardians must apply for the program through their school system to have their children's eligibility determined.
"Each application is a household application, meaning all children in a household are eligible for benefits if the household qualifies," Nichols said. "This is based on family size and income."