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Second graders Toby Wolde, from left to right, Sam Zink and Tristan Yeargain, eat lunch in the cafeteria at Fairyland Elementary School on Monday morning.

On Tuesday morning at about 7:15, 10-year-old Allison Penk scooped out the last of the yogurt and granola from her breakfast parfait.

The fourth grader at Rossville Elementary School spends just about every morning of the school year in the cafeteria.

"I eat breakfast here all the time," Allison said with a wide smile.

Allison is one of about 300 students who regularly eat breakfast at Rossville Elementary.

Joshua Ford, 8, and Adriaunna Burns, 9, are two others.

Adriaunna really loves when the cafeteria serves mini pancakes for breakfast and spaghetti for lunch. Joshua is more of a classic biscuit and cheese sticks kind of guy.

Many students in Walker County and across Northwest Georgia depend on meals during school days. Many families depend on financial assistance for those meals through the federal government's free and reduced-price lunch program.

In Walker County, nearly 72% of kids receive free or reduced-price lunches. The state average is about 60%.

At the state level

About 1 in every 7.5 households in Georgia is food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In July, the Georgia Department of Education School Nutrition Program announced its updated policy for free and reduced-price lunch that expanded the eligibility for low-income households.

The parameters are based on family size and household income. For a family of three, students are eligible for free lunches if the income is less than $27,779 a year and reduced prices if the income is between $27,730 and $39,461 a year. That was about an $870 bump from the year before.

Children in households that are receiving benefits from SNAP and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are also eligible. In certain schools, kids who meet the definition of “homeless, runaway or migrant” are also eligible.

 

Unlike other school districts in the area, the free and reduced-price participation rates vary widely among schools in Walker County.

Rossville Elementary has the highest rate in the district with 98% of kids on free and reduced-price lunches. Fairyland Elementary on Lookout Mountain has a rate of 23%, the widest margin by far between schools in the same district in the seven-county Northwest Georgia area.

That drastic difference shows how different the challenges can be for each school.

(Read more: Hamilton County school board looks to tackle unpaid school lunch debt, policy)

All hands on deck

Rossville Elementary has about 430 students, nearly all of them eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

In nearby Catoosa County, the districtwide rate for the program is much lower at 48%. Dade County has a rate of 56%.

In Chattooga County, the overall rate is 81%, but the five-school system has program participation rates that range from 59% to 94%. Whitfield County has a similar rate to Walker's, 73%, but is pretty consistent across the board.

Just two years ago, Rossville Elementary didn't offer free breakfast. Parents and families would struggle to keep up with bills owed to the school, Principal Courtney Gadd said.

Others would rush at home, struggling to serve their kids breakfast and still be on time to work and school.

Now that Rossville Elementary offers free breakfast, it's one of the busiest times of the school day.

"On any given day we'll have 300 kids here for breakfast," Gadd said.

She said that just a few years ago, the rate of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch was in the 80s, before it dramatically rose to the levels it is at now.

"I just think that it's the time we're in and the community we're in," Gadd said. "The needs are high in this area, but it's part of our normal. It's just what we do. Whether it be with food, clothes, shoes, if kids need backpacks or anything else, we want to be there to help them."

However, "that number does not define my kids or what we're doing," she said.

Gadd said the high number of kids on free and reduced-price lunches was a talking point in a schoolwide conversation in the last couple of years.

"We talked about that [as a school] and we thought, 'Well, we can do the poor us and woe is me,' but we all decided to really embrace that and took it on as an adventure," she said. "An adventure awaits every day. That's our mentality, and it's been amazing."

Gadd pointed to a handful of nutrition and student-aid programs the school offers that continue to be a lifeline for parents, students and faculty.

There's a fruit and vegetable program where kids eat a nutritious snack four times a week. Snacks have included raw sweet potatoes, broccoli and ranch dressing, cucumbers, pineapple, grapes and even dragon fruit.

The school recently teamed up with the Chattanooga Food Bank, which helps 150 kids go home with lunches on Fridays for the weekend. Helping Hands, an organization that helps with food insecurity in youth, helps package about 70 bags of food for families at Rossville Elementary every Thursday.

"It's an undertaking," Gadd said. "It can be more stressful than other situations, but we see it as more of a new adventure. Instead of being stressed by issues, we ask ourselves what can we do to fix it?"

When it comes to retention rates, Gadd said the numbers show the positive attitudes around the building have paid off.

Last year, the school had to hire only one new teacher.

"The ones that are here, they love these children," she said. "It's not easy, and they'll tell you that, but it's our calling to be here."

 

Dealing with their own challenges

At Fairyland Elementary during lunch, second graders Kaiden Ledford, Ansel Koeninger and Olivia Tomas all brought their own lunches.

All the girls said they normally bring their lunch from home. On occasion they'll get in line with some of the other kids.

Olivia had a pizza Lunchable, Pringles, pretzels and a Kool-Aid pack that she put in her water.

"Look what happens to it," she said, showing off the bright red drink that used to be plain H2O.

Kaiden had a ham sandwich and a yogurt pack, while Ansel had noodles in a warm thermos.

Fairyland has the lowest free and reduced-price lunch participation rate in the county at 28%.

Even so, Principal Jeremy Roerdink said, that number has been on the rise in the last 10 years.

"That goes back to the recession that we had. Prior to that it was 15%," said Roerdink, who's in his 10th year as principal. "That number has not quite doubled, but it was an impact even up here, where we had folks either move away in the community and we also just have a lot more working parents than we've had in the past."

Even though Fairyland has a fairly low amount of program participation, Roerdink said his student body is diverse.

"What I always tell prospective parents is that when those kids walk through the doors, those lines are blurred. We literally have about a third of our kids in the upper socioeconomic (level), a third of our kids are in the middle and a third of our kids are down here."

At the end of the day, the student body at Fairyland is different from the one at Rossville. Fairlyand's students test in the top 1% statewide. It's also the only non-Title 1 elementary school in the district, meaning it can't access federal dollars.

"From a budgeting standpoint, that creates some challenges," Roerdink said.

The school's PTO group, made up of parents, fundraises every year for the school and its activities and costs.

Roerdink realizes that Fairyland and Rossville's situations are "night and day," but said each school deals with the hand it's dealt.

Vicki Fann, cafeteria manager for Rossville Elementary, has worked for the district for 40 years. She said she and her staff are busy every day, but she wouldn't have it any other way.

"We feed them well," Fann said. "It's very important to us that they have a nutritious meal every day and that we make sure they get what they need."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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