Tyler ISD parent Mitchell Battles sees the benefits in free and reduced price meals.
Battles, 49, said he believes the program is an advantage to the parent, as well as the community.
“Everyone knows a hungry student can’t learn sufficiently or perform sufficiently,” he said.
Battles, whose child was eligible for free meals last year, also called it “very cost effective all the way around.”
He represents the numerous East Texans who have been involved with free and reduced price meals.
The collective number of free and reduced price students in Tyler ISD, Whitehouse ISD, Bullard ISD, Henderson ISD, Troup ISD and Jacksonville ISD increased between last year and this year, based on October data, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. In 2012, there were 46,438 students on free and reduced price meals in those districts, and in 2013, that number rose to 46,632, according to TDA.
TDA Communications Director Bryan Black said via email that changes in the number of students who are eligible for free and reduced meals could be attributed to various things, such as economic conditions, population, and changes in federal eligibility requirements.
According to TDA, “children in households up to 130 percent of the poverty level, or $30,615 for a household of four annually, are eligible for free meals through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program,” and children in households “be- tween 131 and at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines” are eligible for reduced price meals.
Districts may offer free breakfast to all students, and as of the 2014-15 school year, Texas public and charter school campuses with 80 percent or more free and reduced price students will be required to supply a free breakfast to all students “or to seek a waiver opting out of that requirement,” Black said.
In Tyler ISD, the number of students on free and reduced price meals varies each year, depending on the local economy, Food Service Director Victor Olivares said via email.
For 2012-13, 7,617, or 80 percent, of elementary students, 3,147, or 78 percent, of middle school students, and 2,979, or 68 percent, of high school students were on free and reduced price meals. For 2013-14, up until November, 7,342, or 77 percent, of elementary students, 2,974, or 77 percent, of middle school students, and 3,124, or 68 percent, of high school students were on free and reduced price meals.
“These numbers are fairly steady and this year can still go up some as we get a few extra students qualified throughout the school year,” Olivares said.
He said increases in the number of students on free and reduced price meals can sometimes be because of government changes to the qualifying income.
He said a higher percentage of students on free and reduced price meals impacts districts in a positive way as far as financial aid and government assistance. For example, the district can get more money for things like the summer feeding program, he said.
At the same time, higher numbers also show that people are not earning what they once were, or there is not a plentiful amount of jobs, Olivares said.
“I see people come in mid-year to get in the … program (because their) job cuts hours all of a sudden,” he added.
In Jacksonville ISD, about 83 percent of students were free and reduced price meals as of the end of earlier this year, Food Service Director Clay Carter said.
Carter said that free and reduced numbers somewhat decrease from the elementary level to the middle school and high school, which could partly be because students in higher grades don’t always eat in the cafeteria.
Jacksonville ISD Superintendent Dr. Joe Wardell said the qualifying income amount for families also has changed in recent years, which could factor in to the free and reduced numbers.
Overall, students benefit regardless of whether they are on free and reduced price meals because they all have the opportunity to be fed, Carter said.
In Bullard ISD, the number of students on free and reduced price meals was about 36 percent earlier this year, according to Food Service Director Tonya McFarland. By campus, it was 31 percent at Bullard High School, 31 percent at Bullard Middle School, 37 percent at Bullard Elementary School, 38 percent at Bullard Intermediate School and 44 percent at Bullard Primary School, which houses pre-kindergarten and Head Start students.
Ms. McFarland said district enrollment has increased, but the overall percentage of students on free and reduced meals in Bullard ISD has stayed balanced.
In Troup ISD, there has been a noticeable increase in the past two years in the number of students on free and reduced price meals, Child Nutrition Director Renee Medford said.
As of earlier this year, about 58 percent of Troup ISD students were on free and reduced price meals. That equates to 620 out of 1,098 students, 130 are at the high school, 145 are at the middle school and 345 are at the elementary school.
Ms. Medford said from what she hears, a lot of people lost of jobs or had to take another job, and aren’t earning as much as they used to.
In Henderson ISD, 3,469 were enrolled as of October, 2,227 were on free and reduced price meals, said Tanya Davis, the district’s director of Child Nutrition Services. In October of the 2010-11 school year, 2,056 students were on free and reduced price meals, in October of 2011-12, 2,125 were on free and reduced price meals, and in October 2012-13, 2,177 were on free and reduced price meals.
Ms. Davis said the district has not seen an increase this year in the number of students with categorically eligible statuses, such as homeless or foster child. However, she said the district has seen an increase in the number of students whose families are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.