Free lunch program helps Pee Dee students achieve in classroom

DARLINGTON, SC (WMBF) Over the last five years, Americans have experienced a struggle far worse than many of us have ever experienced. Lost jobs, demotions and cuts are translating into families wondering how to maintain one of our most basic needs, food.

There are more than 25 million children in our nation's elementary and middle schools, many who come to school each morning with growling bellies. Their attention span shortens, productivity wanes and overall their learning suffers. Some schools in the Pee Dee are seeing up to 98% of their students qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program.

For Memrie Blue, her husband and seven children, it's a never ending battle to keep food on the table.

"We spend about $1,200 to $1,500 a month just in groceries. It's a struggle and even then I hear the 'I'm hungry' a lot," says Memrie.

But it hasn't always been this way. Memrie says her life as a stay at home Mom changed drastically when her husband became sick, his kidneys failed and the roles simply changed.

"To find a job that allowed me to pay the bills and allowed me to take care of my children was like pulling teeth. But when I found one, I held on to it and did whatever it took to rise up and get to where I am now," says Memrie.

It's a reality that a startling number of families across the nation are dealing with, but in the Pee Dee, Darlington County most notably, 93.6% of students enrolled at Thornwell Elementary, 88.5% at Brunson-Dargan and more than 87.5% at Washington and 87.4% at Pate Elementary qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. At the top of the list is Rosenwald Elementary in Society Hill. There, 97.7% of the students qualify.

"We have seen it steadily increase of the last few years," says Pam Vaughan.

The latest records From Darlington County Schools show 7,162 students are currently receiving free lunch within the county, while 592 qualify for reduced lunch.

Vaughan is the Director of Food Services for Darlington County. She's watched the number of kids qualifying for the federal lunch program jump 10% in the last decade and equates the 'Great Recession' with the most recent spike.

"We're a farm community area. We don't have as many businesses that parents have the ability to get work so we have experienced a lack of jobs in the Pee Dee area," says Vaughan.

Where the families and schools can't provide, a non-profit in Hartsville called Carolina kids, is desperately trying to fill the void.

"We know that the children shouldn't worry about 'oh my goodness, am I going to have food when I'm home? Where is my next meal coming from?'," says director of Carolina Kids, Andrea Pulling.

So three years ago, they started Hunger Busters, packing 40 bags of food to get the most at-risk students through the weekend. Now that number has increased nine times, to 386 bags a week.

"We know that the reality is that there are so many more food bags that we could be providing," says Pulling.

"A hungry child cannot learn, and it's important that students don't have to worry about their meals. We need them worrying about what they're learning," says Vaughan.

The school district isn't allowing high poverty levels to stifle its abilities in the classroom. In fact their making huge strides. In the past five years they've raised their rating from the South Carolina Department of Education from "Below Average" to "Excellent." And in just the past year, they've improved their ranking from below tenth in the state to fifth. School officials believe with a full stomach, their kids are not only able to focus better but retain information longer, which they say is translating into higher test scores.

With any federal program, there's always a question of abuse. After looking into the federal regulations, it's pretty cut and dry. You either meet the qualifications or you don't. For example, a family of four has to make at or below $2,422 a month. To see if your family qualifies, click here for the details.

To see how your child's school district performed this year from the South Carolina Department of Education's Report Card, check out this link.

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