COVINGTON - The number of students in the Newton County School System receiving free or reduced-priced meals has increased more than 5 percent over the last five years.
Jan Loomans, director of school nutrition for the school system, said during Tuesday's Board of Education meeting that this school year, 53 percent of students receive a free or reduced-price meal.
In the 2003-04 school year, more than 47 percent received a free or reduced-price meal.
Loomans said the current percentage is on track with the state average of between 50 and 53 percent.
To receive a free meal, the annual income for a household size of two is $17,979 or the applicant must have a food stamp case number, be homeless or be a foster child.
For reduced-price status, the annual income for a household size of two is $25,327.
"As the household size goes up, the required income also goes up," Loomans said.
To be considered for free and reduced-price lunch, all applicants have to do is fill out an application at the beginning of each school year.
"It's on an honor system," Loomans said.
She said every year the federal government requires that every student get an application and the schools cannot require proof of income with the form.
The school system is able to verify applications in certain instances, though, during the annual verification period or if there is a cause for concern.
"The federal government requires that Oct. 1 to Nov. 15 of each year we verify a certain number of applicants," Loomans said. "We have to look at error-prone applications, which are within $100 of the annual maximum."
The school system can also require documentation if someone has reason to suspect an inaccuracy on the application.
"I think there's a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, but I do think there are problems with reporting income," Loomans said. "It's a tough situation."
The school system also can verify income on a second application, which would have been submitted after the first one was denied or on reduced-price status.
This year, the system verified 1.5 percent of the total number of applications on file as of Oct. 1. They also verified some that were suspected, Loomans said.
None of those suspected applications were denied because the family provided the information, but a few of the ones selected for verification during the annual period were denied, Loomans said.
If the application is denied after being verified, the school system will send a letter to the parents announcing that the child's benefits will be discontinued within 10 days, Loomans said.
"We give them the opportunity to provide us this income (information)," she said.
If the once-covered student arrives at school without money, the school will allow him or her to charge a meal or provide another meal for free.
"We never want a child to go hungry," Loomans said.
In elementary schools, if a student reaches his or her charge limit, the school will provide them with a lunch.
In middle and high schools, the cashier will hold the tray until the student can find money. If he or she cannot come up with the money, the student can get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a carton of milk.
"Generally, if the child consistently arrives at the cashier with no money, the school counselor gets involved," Loomans said.
In some instances, she said the school may have to contact social services regarding the situation.
Michelle Floyd can be reached at email@example.com.