In the crowded lunchrooms of Marion County's schools, there's a quiet but telling sign that the economy is taking a toll on local families. Sixty percent of students are signed up for free or reduced lunches, a record high for the district. That number is even higher for two of the district's elementary schools, Glasscock and Lebanon Elementary, which both have a 75 percent free and reduced lunch population.
It's a trend schools are experiencing countrywide with millions of children receiving free or low-cost meals. Many of these students have never been eligible before, but are now because their parents have lost their jobs or homes during the economic crisis. All 50 states have shown increases in the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches, according to the Department of Agriculture.
But, it's not just the numbers that tell the story.
It's the students' appetites.
"They're hungry," Anna Fenwick, lunchroom manager at West Marion Elementary School, said. "It's sad. When I see them piling their plate up I think, do they know this will be their last meal until they come back to school tomorrow?"
Fenwick has worked in lunchrooms for 12 years throughout the district, and has been at West Marion Elementary for the past six years. She said the amount of food that used to feed students isn't nearly enough to feed them now.
"It's amazing the food that we fixed even three years ago, we've had to almost double," she said.
For example, Fenwick said she can remember when the lunchroom staff would only have to fix eight pounds of peas, but now they sometimes have to fix up to 28 pounds.
"They are eating them now," Fenwick said.
And the number of students eating breakfast has steadily increased. At West Marion, they serve an average of 250 kids breakfast.
"This year has been unreal," Fenwick said.
She said she's noticed a huge change in the students eating behaviors during the past several years, and the economy has to be a contributing factor.
"I've noticed some kids are eating foods now that before they would pass by," Fenwick said. "I think they appreciate more now."
For a child to qualify for free meals, his or her family's income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, or $29,055 for a family of four. Children who meet the definition of "migrant" automatically qualify for free meals.
Reduced-price meals (30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch) go to households between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line, an income no higher than $41,348 for a family of four.