By Caleigh Wells
The number of students in Buena Vista’s schools who can get free or reduced-price lunches has doubled in the past decade, and now makes up more than half the district’s pupil population.
Rockbridge County’s numbers are also sharply higher and rising. The figures reflect a nationwide trend. Students from low-income families now make up the majority of schoolchildren in the United States, according to a report released by the Southern Education Foundation in January.
Kristen Hinrichs is a therapeutic day treatment counselor at Enderly Heights Elementary School in Buena Vista. She says the lunch program is important so kids can learn and participate in class.
“Kids [are] not able to focus when they’re hungry,” Hinrichs said. “If they’re worrying about where their next meal’s coming from, you know, math seems kind of not so important.”
The National School Lunch Act, passed 70 years ago, requires public schools to provide free and low-cost lunches to students of poor families — those with an income below $29,101 for a family of two, or roughly another $7,500 for every additional person in that family.
Participation is among the highest on record this year, with 51 percent of students in public schools across the country approved to receive free or reduced school lunches and breakfasts.
Kids Count Data Center is a project devoted to providing data and trend analysis to ensure children’s well-being nationwide. It reports that Virginia has one of the lowest numbers of students who qualify for subsidized meals, at 39 percent. But Rockbridge County and Buena Vista City Public Schools both well exceed the state average.
Rockbridge County schools currently approve 1,200 of their 2,500 students for the program or 48 percent, an all-time high. And Natural Bridge Elementary School supports eight in 10 of its students, the most of any school in the Rockbridge Area.
Even Lexington city schools, whose rates of providing subsidized meals remain well below the average, have seen a rise in qualifying children.
“It’s just a sign of the economic times,” said Lexington Assistant Superintendent Scott Jefferies. “It’s only going to be increasing.”
Jefferies estimates that 20 percent of his system’s students are eligible this year, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Howard Pickett, director of the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability at Washington and Lee University, said some of the increased participation in subsidized school lunch programs might be attributable to greater awareness of the programs.
But the region’s failure to recover fully from the recession has also increased participation, Pickett acknowledged.
“It could also be the case that over time certain things were done to de-stigmatize participation,” he said.
Jefferies said that even with one in every five kids in his schools approved for the free and reduced lunch program, students aren’t set apart by their socioeconomic status.
“The kids don’t know,” he said. “I mean it’s all one [lunch] line. So from that there isn’t any kind of embarrassment factor.”
At Rockbridge County’s Central Elementary School, less than a mile from Waddell, the percentage of kids eligible for a subsidized lunch program is double that of Waddell.
Jefferies said that employment opportunities in Lexington account for the extreme difference in poverty rates. He said the high-income jobs offered at Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute attract people whose children do not qualify for subsidized lunches.
Lexington city schools also offer enrollment to kids from the county for a tuition fee. County students whose families can afford to enroll their kids in Waddell or Lylburn Downing Middle School make up one fourth of the Lexington student population.
Lexington’s more expensive housing market also affects the number of city students in the school lunch program, Jefferies said. Between 2009 and 2013 Lexington had a median property value of $262,000, according to the Census, compared to $180,000 in the county and $118,000 in Buena Vista.
But Jefferies thinks the school lunch figures for Lexington could go up more sharply in the next few years. Washington and Lee University will begin requiring third-year students to live on campus in two years. That will take several hundred renters out of the local housing market, and will probably reduce rents, making city properties more affordable to lower-income people, Jefferies said.
“With [W&L] in the next couple of years making the students live on campus, what kind of dominoes fall from there?” he said.