‘Food insecurity’ is real concern for local schools, families

NEMiss.news Food security concerns in schools
September 8th, 2020     Featured General News

Because of growing concern over “food insecurity,” providing meals to students has been a factor in deciding to resume school classes.

Food insecurity, which has become something of a “buzz word. ” It is defined as lack of access to food that is both nutritious and affordable.

Having a low income does not always cause food insecurity, though it does present more challenges. Nor does having a high income necessarily guarantee good nutrition.

Ideally, food options should be nutritious, fresh and unprocessed, as well as affordable and accessible.

Schools are concerned because students with poor nutrition cannot learn as well. Food insecurity may hamper a child’s overall development during formative years.

Food insecurity levels in Union County

Union County has low levels of food insecurity, compared to statewide figures. However, it still affects a significant part of the county’s population.

According to Feed America, the Union County food insecurity rate is 14.5 percent of the total households.

  • Within that 14.5 percent, 22 percent of the households have incomes above the threshold of 185 percent of poverty rate. They do not qualify for meal assistance in the schools.
  • Seventeen percent of those households have incomes of 130-185 percent of the poverty rate. Therefore, they qualify for reduced-price meals.
  • 62 percent of that 14.5 percent have incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level. Therefore, those children qualify for free meals (and SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

The Mississippi Health and Hunger Atlas study

In 2017, the University of Mississippi compiled a Mississippi Health and Hunger Atlas that studied health and nutrition.

At the time, Union County had 3,152 families with children. However, single-parent families with children accounted for 1052 (about 33%) of those families.

  • 22.5% of the total county population were considered to be living in poverty.
  • 18% of all family units in Union County were considered to be living in poverty.
  • 48.8% of all single parent families were living in poverty.

The study considered 17.4 percent of all Union County individuals to fall under the food insecurity level. However, 28.9 percent of all children were deemed food insecure.

How eligibility is determined school meal assistance

A formula determines whether children can qualify for the reduced-price or free school meals. It is based on income and number of individuals in the household. For instance:

  • A family of four would need to have an annual income of $47,638 or less to qualify for reduced-price meals.
  • An income of $22,475 or less for a four-person family would allow free meals.

A regular breakfast at New Albany High School costs $1. Student lunch is regularly $2.25. An adult lunch is $3.25. Fruits, vegetables, chips, water, ice cream and entrées only are available for various additional prices.

  • The reduced price for lunch would be 40 cents or less,
  • breakfast would be 30 cents or less
  • snacks 15 cents or less.

At the time of the study, the federal government was paying schools:

  • $1.71 per free breakfast; $1.41 per reduced-price breakfast;  $0.29 per “paid” breakfast. Extra payments came if 40 percent of the lunches served during the second preceding year were free or reduced. The government then paid an additional 33 cents for each free or reduced breakfast.
  • $3.22 for free lunches; $2.82 for reduced-price lunches; 36 cents for paid lunches.

Current number of students enrolled in the school food assistance program

According to state figures, the city schools this year had 2,163 students enrolled. Of that, 1,127 or 52 percent received free or reduce-price meals.

The county enrollment was listed as 2,980, with 1,376 students or 46 percent receiving the meal assistance.

The total for the county and city was 5,143 students with 2,503 or 48 percent receiving meal assistance. The state average for number of students qualifying for free lunches is 69 percent.

Food insecurity levels in individual local city and county schools

School Total Students Received free

or reduced

Percent
NA Elementary 1,114 580 61%
NA Middle 479 268 56%
NA High 570 279 49%
East Union 915 430 47%
Ingomar 678 251 37%
Myrtle 703 415 59%
West Union 684 280 41%

 

What the SNAP program provides:

The food stamp, or SNAP program, helps entire families as well as helping qualify children for school meal assistance.

In New Albany alone, 481 households were receiving food stamps while 1,475 families were county-wide.

The median income for the 10,300 households in the county is $37,500. For those receiving food stamps, however, the median income is only $16,200. This compares to a median income of $43,800 for the 8,825 families not on food stamps.

This past June in Union County, 2,597 individuals in 1,117 households received $258,806 in SNAP benefits.

While the SNAP and school meal program help, they apparently are not enough.

Other entities providing food assistance

The Union County Good Samaritans have provided food to as many as 450 families a month. Groups, such as First Baptist Church, and even individual families, stepped up to provide free sack lunches during the early part of the pandemic. Some schools have established food pantries within the schools to help provide food for needy students, particularly over the weekends. Teachers have told stories of seeing students trying to hoard food on Fridays to help carry them over until Monday.

The pandemic has worsened food insecurity via lost income. This may necessitate choosing whether to pay for food, medicine, housing, utilities or other necessities. It has also been shown those with lower incomes are more likely to buy cheaper, easier-to-prepare and less nutritious food. Food insecurity affects adults as well as children, due to poor choices. Higher income does not protect against food insecurity on its own.

That’s why the schools place the emphasis they do on nutrition; if they don’t, no one else may.

 

Food-related plans in local school districts during the pandemic:

Union County Schools – 

  • All Union County food services workers are required to wear masks or shields, gloves and other protective safety gear.
  • Students and staff are allowed to wash hands before and after meals  Additionally, spaces in the food service line are marked as well as flow paths.
    • Pre-K-1 students have breakfast and lunch brought to their classroom.
    • Students in grades 2-12 also go through the line in the cafeteria and take breakfast to their first class to eat.
  • No sharing of utensils or food items is allowed and, in addition, only disposable plates, utensils, etc. are used.
  • Staff clean high touch services in the cafeteria as often as possible. Also, they remove garbage from meals in a timely manner.

New Albany Schools

  • All students eat all meals in the classrooms.
  • Those students who plan to eat breakfast at school should arrive in time to eat before class begins. Students pick up breakfast at designated areas (not just the cafeteria) in each school on the way to the classroom.
  • Students may bring lunchboxes to school and keep them with backpacks.
  • Snack juice and milk will continue to be available for purchase at the elementary school.
  • Students have a choice of two entrees for lunch. They go to the cafeteria to choose and receive a covered plate with lunch choices and drink. Lunch trash is removed from classrooms promptly.
  • For food safety purposes, the meals provided are typical sack meals with cold food options. All students who received free or reduced meals last year have that same status for 20 days.
  • For students who have chosen the 100-percent virtual school option for their school instruction may pick up meals for multiple days each Tuesday and Thursday from 9-10 a.m. at the back of the New Albany Middle School Cafeteria.

Additional food related safety actions

  • Precautionary measures include requiring all food service workers to wear masks or face coverings and other PPE such as gloves and aprons while preparing food.
  • Students may wash hands before and after eating. Hand sanitizer is provided for students and staff.
  • Students must wear face masks or coverings while in group gatherings such as picking up meals.
  • Space lines and flow paths are used as well as staggering times when students are present.
  • Students may not share eating utensils. Disposable covered plates, utensils, etc. increase safety.
  • Cleaning of cafeterias and high-touch surfaces continues throughout the school day and garbage removal and disposal of meal items should be accomplished in a timely manner.
  • In the event that city schools need to close, then buses will deliver meals. Additionally, they will deliver and pick up educational packets to and from students and families. If feasible, they will reduce contact by delivering multiple days of meals during a designated time.

To view the Mississippi Health and Hunger Atlas county by county figures: https://socanth.olemiss.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/154/2017/05/Hunger-Atlas-2017.pdf

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