By Rachel Stone
There are 1,188 students in the Rockbridge County schools who get free or reduced lunches, and proportionately similar numbers in the Lexington and Buena Vista city schools.
But there are probably even more who could qualify, based on the prevalence of low-income families in the area, according to Daphne Stickley, school nutrition supervisor for Rockbridge County schools.
Unfortunately, she said, there is a stigma that comes with accepting free or reduced meals. Stickley said administration is trying to make sure students know that they can get the help they need without identifying themselves to their peers.
“We are trying to get that word out to people to get them to understand that everyone types in their [personal identification number] when they go through the line,” she said.
Even if there is under-enrollment, the percentage of students who get free and reduced meals in Rockbridge County and Buena Vista is higher than the average in Virginia, which is about 40 percent.
In Buena Vista, more than half the students qualify for free or reduced price meals. Forty-three percent of students in Rockbridge County schools qualify. In Lexington City, about a quarter of the students qualify.
This year, schools throughout the Rockbridge area have increased school lunch prices slightly in response to updated U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies. Administrators said that they haven’t received any complaints about the increase, which happens every few years.
The increase does not change the cost for reduced priced meals in the area.
If a household of four makes less than $31,525, the children are eligible to receive free lunches. If the household income is greater than the free lunch threshold but less than $44,863, the children qualify for reduced price meals. These amounts are set each year by the USDA based on the federal income poverty guidelines.
There is no indication that free and reduced percentages are getting higher, other than random variation. According to Lexington Superintendent Scott Jefferies, an additional four percent of students receive free or reduced meals this year compared to last year. But Rockbridge County schools saw a slight decline.
Poverty rate highest in Lexington
In contrast to its school systems, Lexington has the highest poverty rate in the area. According to the U.S. Census Bureau data, Rockbridge County falls slightly below the national average of 15.4 percent. But a quarter of Lexington City lives in poverty, as does over 20 percent of Buena Vista.
“We have a workforce development problem here,” said Mimi Elrod, mayor of Lexington City. “We have a lot of people who . . . are not prepared. They’re not prepared for the job.”
Mary “Kitty” Brown, executive direction at the RARA food pantry, said Rockbridge County has a high rate of unemployment, which leads to increased poverty. She said about 13 percent of people in the area do not know where their next meal will come from. This food insecurity has a negative effect on children.
The area has many organizations devoted to trying to help these families. There’s not much else officials can do except try to get students to do better in school, Elrod said.
“It’s a hard topic because I don’t think that anyone can put their finger on [the cause],” she said. “But I think it does really affect the children.”
Elrod said she thinks a possible solution is giving high school students the ability to go immediately into the workforce after graduation, as college is not for everyone.
“The hub for that may be with the community colleges,” she said. “Make sure that when people leave high school, they have some earning ability.”
Better-fed students can pay more attention to learning, educators say.
“Hungry students can’t learn,” Stickley said. “They can’t concentrate. They’re tired.”