There is no doubt about our commitment–as a nation and a state–to improving educational opportunities and outcomes. Sometimes we forget about the key role nutrition plays in helping kids get to school and be ready to learn. For many Oklahoma children, nutrition means the free and reduced price school meal program. It’s as big a part of the school day as English, math, and social studies class.
During the current school year, more than half of Oklahoma’s school-age population – 56.3 percent – live in families with household incomes low enough to qualify to receive free or reduced school meals. According to a report prepared by the State Department of Education, just under 300,000 public school students, or 46.4 percent, qualified for free school meals, which means that their family income was below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $27,560 per year for a family of four. An additional 63,000 students, or 9.8 percent, qualified for reduced-cost meals, which is based on family income below 185 percent of the poverty rate ($39,220 per year for a family of four).
Enrollment in the free and reduced meal program has increased every year this decade, rising from 48.3 percent of public school students in FY ’01 to the current 56.3 percent. This trend may reflect an increase in the number of children living in low-income households, along with more effective outreach efforts by school districts to get eligible children enrolled. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report, 49 percent of Oklahoma children lived in families with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level in 2007.
The Department of Education’s report on eligibility for school nutrition programs provides data on the low-income student population by school, by district, and by county. In fifteen counties, more than seven in ten students are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. Harmon County has the highest enrollment rate at 80.6 percent, while Canadian County has the lowest, at 36.2 percent. Children in the state’s two largest urban school districts are overwhelmingly low-income, with 85.5 percent of children in Oklahoma City Public Schools and 76.9 percent of children in Tulsa Public Schools enrolled in the free and reduced meal program.
For many of these low-income students, the free or low-priced breakfasts and lunches served at school can make a vital difference in maintaining adequate nutrition and preventing food insecurity and hunger. During summer vacation months, many children face greater obstacles to getting enough to eat. The Summer Food Service Program, operated by schools, churches, non-profits, local governments, and others that operate summer activity programs can help fill the gap. The Department of Education is in the process of approving program participants for summer 2009; those looking for information about programs in their area are invited to contact Yvette Bruff at (405) 521-3327 or by e-mail at yvette_bruff(at)sde.state.ok.us.