Nearly 60 percent of Georgia's public school students receive either a free or reduced lunch every day, with an increase of almost 50,000 students in the last five years, writes Dorie Turner at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
These subsidized lunches are aimed at low-income students and experts say there are more needy students than the amount currently fed by the program in the schools. It is thought that many families don't sign up for the federal program largely because they don't want to ask for help.
"It is hard because you have to make a decision on whether or not you want to be prideful," said Arlena Edmonds, a parent who has signed her child up for free lunches.
"Thank God this system is available."
Edmonds signed her 10th-grader up for free lunches when she lost her $48,000-a-year job last year.
Across the country, more than 20 million students receive federally subsidized lunches each day, compared to 17 million in 2006 – a stark reflection of how the middle classes have been hit by the recession.
In Georgia, the number of children signed up for free meals is up by nearly 25 percent, according to state data. And as state funding for lunchrooms has shrank by about 40 percent in the last few years, schools have been forced to cut cafeteria workers, delaying repairs on equipment and offered fewer meal options each day to make up for the $23 million shortfall.
"Some parents are feeling the economic strain for the first time," said Meredith Potter, coordinator of school nutrition for Houston County in central Georgia.
"We are seeing an increase in lunchboxes in the lunchroom due to the fact that those parents may not have ever applied for any type of benefits before. There are less people charging, but the charges we do have are harder to collect."
The National School Lunch Program began in 1946, with more than 7.1 million children enrolled in its first year. In 1970 the number swelled to 22 million, and cost the state $225 million.
In 2010, the program fed more than 31 million children, at a cost of $10.8 billion.