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Hungry bellies need filling in Yuba-Sutter schools
Sometimes at breakfast or lunch, Principal Rob Gregor spots a student stuffing food into his or her pockets.
At Ella Elementary School, where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals, he knows the behavior is likely driven by bare cupboards at home or knowledge that no dinner will be on the table later. The number of hungry bellies has only increased in recent years, he said, as the economy worsened family hardships.
Many school districts are reporting a rise in student eligibility for free and reduced-price meals, but not everyone takes advantage of the meal offerings. Some families still cannot afford reduced meal prices of 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch, and either incur debt until they are cut off or send their children to school with orders not to participate.
"We do have children who incur costs that really can't afford them, and they quit coming in and getting the food that they need," Gregor said.
Staff at the Olivehurst school keep an eye out for kids who don't eat lunch and offer a meal regardless of ability to pay. Then, they do what they can to see if a family has a hardship or find another way to approve the student for meals, even if it means going to their home with a form to sign.
The Marysville Joint Unified School District has always been high poverty, and that's only increased with the economic downturn, said Mary Driscoll, director of nutrition services.
Schools counter the challenge by providing as much nutrition as possible through breakfast, lunch, and often midday and afterschool snacks, often regardless of ability to pay.
"If you're hungry, you can't learn," she said. "It's imperative we feed as many of these kids as we can."
Economy increases eligibility
In Marysville Joint Unified, 79 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, up 5 percent in the last four years. Driscoll credits the change in part to families' shrinking incomes but also to an expansion in eligibility qualifiers.
"The government has stepped up and done some things to help," Driscoll said.
The government now requires the district to check student eligibility with county or state aid databases several times a year to catch new eligibility, ensures eligibility continues through the year regardless of a change in status, and added categories for automatic eligibility, such as homeless or migrant school children.
Free meal participation has always been high, but as reduced-price participation faltered, Driscoll thought of another way to ensure students could eat — eliminating the charge for reduced priced meals. Elk Grove Unified made a similar switch years ago, and reported the increase in participation and its associated federal reimbursement covered any income lost by not charging.
Schools that serve at least 60 percent free and reduced priced lunches are reimbursed $2.79 for each free lunch, $2.39 for each reduced-price lunch and 28 cents for each paid lunch. They are reimbursed $1.80 for free breakfast, $1.50 for reduced-price breakfast and 27 cents for paid breakfast.
Marysville Joint Unified will need at least a 17 percent increase in participation to break even, but board members liked the idea and will no longer charge for reduced-price meals starting July 1. A 25-cent increase for paid meals will take effect at the same time, as mandated by the federal government.
Gregor was thrilled to hear about the change.
"A lot of time you feel you are asking somebody to pay something when you know they don't have the wherewithal to pay for it," he said.
In Yuba City Unified, the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced meals has gone up nearly 9 percent, to about 65 percent. The district charges the 30 cents or 40 cents for reduced-price meals, but most families who qualify participate, said Mary Delong, director of student nutrition.
"My opinion is if they don't have the money to feed them at home, they are going to send them to school so they can count on that first nutritious meal," Delong said. "There's comfort in knowing they are going to get a square meal, that fresh fruit and vegetables are provided."
Learning, diet linked
For breakfast on any given day, students may be offered French toast, oatmeal or omelets, and at lunch, hamburgers, tacos and spaghetti are menu favorites, along with salad bars. A few schools also offer fresh fruit and vegetable snacks with the help of grants.
"We have many children that look forward to breakfast and lunch because there are some that may not get anything else for the day," said Angela Huerta, principal at April Lane Elementary in Yuba City, where 86 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals.
She also knows that for some students, their school meals may be the only access to healthy food and fresh fruits and vegetables and uses it as a learning opportunity.
"When I'm in the cafeteria, I talk to the kids about the healthy options on their plate — 'You have this fruit, this vegetable,'" Huerta said. "They all know if there is anything sugar on their plate, that's what we eat last."
She also does her best to encourage eating not-so-popular foods.
"I tell the kids, if you eat all your green beans, you will have superpowers this afternoon when you are learning," she said.
Educators in both districts agree no student should go hungry, no matter what it takes. It's proven that students who eat nutritious meals are more attentive, better behaved and perform better.
"We don't allow anybody to go hungry here," Huerta said. "Research shows that good nutrition impacts learning, so we want them to eat."
CONTACT Ashley Gebb at email@example.com or 749-4783. Find her on Facebook at /ADagebb or on Twitter at @ADagebb.