Georgia Governor Brian Kemp raised eyebrows earlier this year when he vetoed a bipartisan measure that would have funded free and reduced-price meals to K-12 students in the state. Earlier this month, however, the state school board filled that void by approving $6.3 million in federal funds to revive the initiative.
The state agency’s decision means that approximately 1,686,318 school children around the state, including thousands in Coastal Georgia, will have access to meals when the school year starts this fall, extending the popular program that the U.S. Congress funded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In McIntosh County, 79% of public school students qualify for free and reduced lunch according to federal guidelines. In Liberty, that number is 70%; in Chatham, 69%; in Glynn, 60%. In Camden, 45% of students qualify, and 32% of Bryan students are eligible for assistance.
Families at or below 130% of the federal poverty line can receive free lunch. Families between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty line can receive a reduced-price lunch. Within these guidelines a family with 3 children must earn less than $32,318 in order to receive free lunches.
The sponsor of the original bill that passed in both chambers of the legislature before Kemp vetoed it praised the news that funding had been found. But she also expressed concern that the governor wouldn’t commit state funds to help so many children.
“I guess it’s a win for this year. Still need to pass HB510 so it’s permanent,” said State Rep. Imani Barnes, a Democrat from DeKalb County, speaking of the original bill.
The governor’s office declined to comment after multiple attempts to contact.
More than 1 million Georgians, including 335,720 children, are struggling with food insecurity. Barnes, who is a single parent of a 12-year-old son, was one of hundreds of worried parents who wondered how to feed their children when the federal program expired last year.
“In 2023 when the free meal program was over, I had to begin budgeting again when the cost of food was at an all-time high and inflation was also at an all-time high,” Barnes said. “It made me wonder how families in low socioeconomic communities and those with less financial resources than I were feeding their children each school day.”
The federal Universal School Meals Program Act came after the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the economy and left millions of families struggling to make ends meet.
The bill allowed the Department of Agriculture to issue waivers that allowed schools to provide free meals to all 50.6 million public school students nationwide, regardless of their household income. This helped prevent a dramatic increase in childhood hunger that would have only compounded the effects of the pandemic.
Research by the Centers for Disease Control revealed that over a third of U.S. households surveyed experienced some form of food insecurity during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The research found that 35.3% of respondents experienced food insecurity, with 3.4% remaining food insecure. However, the majority of households (64.7%) remained secure.
According to the study, those who remained food-secure tended to be older, self-identified as White, and had a higher income at first interview. However, certain households, such as Black and Hispanic or Latino households and households with children, were found to be more vulnerable to food insecurity due to the pandemic.
The pandemic also contributed to rising food prices in the U.S., something creating additional hardships especially for tens of thousands of Georgians living paycheck-to-paycheck. This includes low-income households, whose food costs make up an average of 30% of their income.
Fetecia Hunter, a parent from Savannah, said she made too much money to qualify for free and reduced lunches when her son was in public school. Without the federal funding for reduced meals for him, she said she had to juggle bill payments and the cost of school lunch.
“People don’t realize that some don’t have food at home, and just because you are in that bracket that the government feels that we need to be to qualify. That doesn’t mean you have money to buy food. Your child may go to school, and then when it was free lunch, that was their meal for the day, and people just don’t realize that,” Hunter said.
Federal pilot program
In early May, Kemp’s office released a list of 134 orders that either fully or partially disregarded budgeted funds approved by the state legislature. The Healthy Start bill was among them. At the time the only explanation given by the governor’s office was that “the amount provided may not be enough to fully fund the program.”
In the interim, U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, Jr., signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start a federal pilot program that aims to increase locally grown produce in schools. Georgia will receive $7.17 million out of $200 million allocated nationally for the program.
The federal funds allocated by the state school board are separate from this program.
Amid the politics, several nonprofit organizations have stepped in to help families fill the gap between the summer and fall.
America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia is providing more than 5,000 meals per day for students in Chatham, Effingham, Bryan, Liberty, Bulloch, Glynn, Wayne and Tattnall counties during June by partnering with 21st Century Learning Sites and YMCA after school programs.
Mary Jane Crouch, executive director of America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, said she thinks food insecurity among students is a major issue.
“I think it’s a huge problem, especially in the summer, which is where we are now. A lot of children really and truly are struggling…. our parents and families are struggling to make sure they have food on the table for their kids, while school’s out.”
Crouch said that changes to federal farm subsidies could help.
In the meantime, Rep. Barnes’ bill remains active, and legislators could again decide to pass it in the 2024 legislative session.
“I will continue to network with my colleagues and with constituents to get this bill passed next session” said Rep. Barnes.
Parents who need help this summer can click this link to find a local food bank or contact Second Harvest for more information.