Across Washington region, many students fight hunger when school is out


Children are served lunch at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md. Of the 708 students at the school, ninety-five percent qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 23, 2012

When classes end for the holidays, many students in the region who depend on their schools’ free and reduced-price meal programs will turn to a patchwork of generosity for something to eat. For thousands of low-income children in the Washington area, that could mean no steady meals during the 10-day break.

Although there are food programs that provide daily meals to eligible students during the summer, a similar service for the winter break does not exist in Washington area schools.

Instead, many eligible students’ families rely on volunteer groups, interfaith organizations and area food banks — which are feeding record numbers of people in need— to fight hunger.

The challenges poor families face differ widely by county, neighborhood and household.

Some school officials say that the current system works efficiently, with most families getting by well enough without intervention from school administrators. Some principals and Parent Teacher Association representatives, however, say hundreds — if not thousands — of families will struggle to feed their children this holiday season.

In many cases, school administrators who help say they are sometimes hindered by privacy rules that prevent them from knowing which children come from poor families.

Despite rising need, Fairfax, Montgomery, Loudoun and Arlington counties and D.C. Public Schools do not provide meals during the winter break, according to officials.

Luis San Sebastian, acting principal at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, said about 95 percent of his 708 students qualify for meal subsidies — the highest percentage in Montgomery County.

“Here we are, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, but the reality is there are pockets of deep poverty here,” San Sebastian said.

At Broad Acres, he said, many parents are immigrants who work as day laborers or take early shifts at places like fast-food restaurants.

San Sebastian said that several volunteer groups will fill baskets with canned foods and other nonperishable goods for students who are eligible for subsidized meals to take home for the winter break.

To be eligible for free meals, a student’s total household income should be less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. To qualify for a reduced-price meal, a student’s family income should be between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line. That means a student with two working parents who earn less than $27,991 a year qualifies for a subsidized meal.

In Fairfax County, the second-wealthiest county in the nation, the number of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals has grown by 38 percent since 2008.

This year, a quarter of the student population — nearly 47,000 children — is eligible for the program.

Montgomery public schools have seen an increase of about 12,000 students in the subsidized meals program since 2007. Today, about 49,350 students in the county — 33 percent of the total enrollment — are eligible for free and reduced meals.

San Sebastian acknowledges that he does not have enough donations to help all the poor families who send students to his school — and what he has might not last the entire holiday break for the neediest students.

“I wish I had food to provide a bag to every child on Friday,” San Sebastian said. “But even these food baskets may give food for one or two days, but it’s a 10-day break, and for many families that’s not enough.”

Maria Moran has such a family. Moran, 31, is the vice president of the Broad Acres Parent Teacher Association and has a first-grader and a second-grader at the school. Both children qualify for free meals.

Moran, who speaks only Spanish, said through a translator that the winter break is hard on families in her community.

Parents are anxious about putting food on the table during those 10 days when there is no school, she said, and that in turn puts stress on the children. Moran said she will use the food she received at Broad Acres from local volunteer groups to cook meals for her family and other neighbors in need.

In Arlington County, about 7,000 students receive free and reduced-price meals — about 31 percent of the total system enrollment.

In D.C. Public Schools, about 52 percent of the students, or about 23,000 children, receive the subsidized meals.

In Loudoun, the nation’s wealthiest county by median household income, about 11,000 children qualify for subsidized meals — about 16 percent of the total student population.

Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard wrote in an e-mail that although the administration has “no formal role” in helping students get meals, “virtually all our schools do something with the effort coordinated through the parent liaisons . . . and local groups.”

Marla Caplon, the director of food and nutrition services for Montgomery County schools, said there is no funding in the budget allowing her to feed poor kids during the holiday break.

“If we could, would we? Absolutely,” Caplon said. “Our hearts are in the right place, but there’s no provision.”

Susan Quinn, Fairfax schools’ chief financial officer, said that although the school system has not historically provided meals during the winter break, administrators would be open to talking about funding such a program.

“I don’t think we’ve had any in-depth conversations about it, but it’s probably an area worth discussing,” Quinn said.

San Sebastian said a model similar to the summer food program should be initiated during winter and spring vacations.

“When it snows, most kids in most families are going to be excited because of no school,” San Sebastian said. “For my kids at Broad Acres, it means no breakfast and no lunch.

“The need is there,” he said.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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