From the Charlotte Observer, writer Barbara Barrett talks to nutrition experts about the staggering number of children enrolled in the program.
"It's almost inconceivable to think, when we're walking around with our $4 lattes, that there are families who can't afford $2 a day for a week," said Cathy Schuchart, vice president of child nutrition and policy with the School Nutrition Association, an advocacy group based in Washington.
A USDA study this year found wide disparities among states in signing up children who receive food stamps for the school lunch program. And although most families routinely receive applications before school starts, many don't know that they can sign up later if a parent loses a job or faces other hardships.
"I suspect there is more need than is indicated," said Maureen Furr, principal at Charlotte's South Mecklenburg High School, where one in three children receive a free or reduced-price lunch. "There's no question in my mind that people are in more difficult circumstances."
To qualify, a family of four must earn $28,665 or less for a free lunch; $40,793 or less to get lunch at a sharply reduced rate.
"Kids shouldn't have to worry about that part of their lives," said Kim Short, principal of Ballentine Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina, where one in three students are on the program. "It's certainly a school issue. But it's a community issue, too."
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hit an all-time high for program enrollment this year, with nearly 52 percent of students impoverished enough to receive a free or reduced-price lunch.
"It has greater significance if you understand what it takes to qualify," Furr said. "I think there's the sense that poverty is more distant from us than it is."