MARIETTA For the past year, Annie Radding has enjoyed the peace of mind of sending her rising first-grader to Hickory Hills Elementary School without a packed lunch or even lunch money and knowing she’d still be fed.

Radding, who is a literacy coach at Hickory Hills, said her daughter ate lunch there most days and had breakfast every now and then, too.

“In the mornings that we were running late, I didn’t have to worry about even feeding her breakfast, because they had it at the school. And it was a good breakfast,” she said.

For the past 14 years, the Marietta school district has been classified as a “Provision II” district by the federal government, which means it has a high enough percentage of families qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch that select schools provided free breakfast and lunch to all students, whether they qualified on an individual basis or not.

Park Street Elementary School was the first to serve those free meals, and within few years, the rest of the district’s elementary schools — Hickory Hills, Dunleith, Lockheed and Sawyer Road — followed, according to Cindy Culver, the district’s director of school nutrition. All Marietta students were also guaranteed free breakfast, regardless of family income, Culver said.

The school district is reimbursed for free and reduced-price meals with federal dollars allocated by the state.

But after a recent reassessment from the federal government and a dramatic decrease in the number of families qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch over the past 15 years, the close of the 2018-19 school year marked the end free meals in the district without filling out a free and reduced-price lunch application.

Radding said her income doesn’t qualify her child for free and reduced-price meals. She said, for her, having the meals provided to her child was more of a convenience. But she and other staff at the school often see children with what they call “makeshift lunches,” she said.

“Some kids come in and say, ‘My mom packed a lunch,’ and it’s chips and a drink,” Radding said. “I think families are just trying to figure it out the best that they can.”

Now, says Superintendent Grant Rivera, the challenge is informing families that they’ll have to apply for free and reduced-price meals. Staff is working hard to ensure every child is fed and every family knows how to get their hands on an application, he said.

Since 2005, the percentage of families in the district who qualify for free and reduced-price meals has dropped from 67.7% to 54.5%, Culver said.

While that sounds like good news, Rivera said he isn’t sure whether the drop is because family incomes are climbing, development within the city is picking up or if families just aren’t filling out the necessary applications. And while filling out an application seems simple enough, Rivera said many families have been conditioned to not feel the need to do so.

“You could have a kid that has gone through the system and has never filled out a free and reduced lunch application but they got it free anyway if you’re at one of those select schools,” Rivera said.

He said his district is being proactive in getting the applications in front of all families. Traditionally, families who wanted to apply for free and reduced-price lunches had to self-identify and pick up an application at their schools, he said.

But now, Rivera said families will have to opt out of the free and reduced-price lunch application, guaranteeing all families will have at least seen it, when they register their student at the start of the school year.

He also said the district is doing “extensive community outreach” to get the applications in front of as many families as possible.

Rivera said churches are being encouraged to include free lunch application information in their weekly bulletins, apartment managers are being asked to put applications in parents’ hands if they visit their homes and volunteers are going to bus stops to spread the word.

He also said programs like Lunch Angels, which collect donations to pay for childrens’ lunches at the schools most in need, have been advertised more widely and had raised nearly $1,000 only a week into the school year.

Other obstacles, including an increase in the number of languages being spoken in the district, has added to the challenge of disseminating the information, he said.

Kristin Beaudin, principal of Hickory Hills Elementary School, said though many schools have bilingual staff members who can make calls to families who speak Spanish, her school, for example, has a large Guatemalan population.

“We’re in a unique situation here that our minority population is primarily Guatemalan, and they don’t all necessarily speak Spanish. They speak a dialect,” she said, adding that many families also need help just navigating the government forms.

Rivera said among the district’s staff, it’s likely all languages spoken by students are covered, but if that was not the case, “we will contract with a private company to translate.”

Beaudin also said the district has been preparing for the loss of Provision II status since last spring by making calls to families ahead of time and trying to get applications filled out to know how many will qualify in future years.

At Hickory Hills, a school where 61% of families qualified for free and reduced lunch last year, it is going to be extremely important that staff continue to look for ways to better communicate with families, Beaudin said.

But Beaudin also said she is going to use this opportunity to learn more about the families at her school. She said when every student in the school was being provided breakfast and lunch, it was much harder to identify the families who may truly need the assistance. The district’s push to get more families to fill out applications will provide each school a better understanding of its families’ needs, she said.

This year will serve as an experiment to see if fewer families in the district actually need free and reduced meals or if a surge in applications will show more families still need assistance, Rivera said. If the latter is true, he said, the district could be reclassified as Provision II and many students who need a consistent source of meals can once again rely on their school without an application.

To apply online for free and reduced-price lunches at Marietta schools, visit mariettacity.strataapps.com. For a paper application, families and students can speak to the cafeteria manager or front office at their school.

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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