“Children can’t learn in the manner that they should when they’re hungry,” said Caree Cotwright, a professor at the University of Georgia and director of nutrition security and health equity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Though the federal government paid for all students to eat free meals at school once they returned to in-person learning, the pandemic-era policy ended in August 2022, and eligible families had to reapply. Many families were unaware they had to submit new applications, said Ken Yant, Gwinnett’s executive director of school nutrition.
Georgia recently approved a $6.3 million grant that ensures families who only qualify for reduced meals will now get them for free. Still, some families don’t meet the income threshold to qualify for reduced meals but struggle financially.
Students began to once again accrue meal debt last year, which accumulates when they get food at school but don’t have money in their account to pay.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution calculated the meal debt per student at elementary schools across Gwinnett County not including Title I schools, which receive federal funding based on their percentage of low-income students. (In Gwinnett, Title I schools provide free breakfast to all students, Yant said.)
As of March 2023, 34% of students in Gwinnett were Hispanic. Yet at the 10 elementary schools with the most meal debt per student as of June, 50.1% of students were Hispanic. Gwinnett, the state’s largest school district, has about 182,000 students.
Leaders of various organizations for Hispanic families in Georgia were unsurprised by the data, given the rising food insecurity they have noticed.
According to Belisa Urbina, CEO of the family services organization Ser Familia, children are at particular risk of hunger. At a back-to-school fair Ser Familia hosted in July, a doctor estimated that more than half of the attendees, who were largely Hispanic, were underweight.
“These kids are hungry,” Urbina said. “They are not eating properly.”
Zindy, a Gwinnett parent who moved from Monterrey, Mexico, to Georgia in 2001, worried her five children would go hungry during the days of virtual learning, given that they receive free meals at school. Yet she said they remained fed even after she lost her job, as a food bank delivered groceries to her mobile home community and schools dropped off meals via trucks.
“I am a single mother and I didn’t have many things,” Zindy, who is undocumented, said in a Spanish-language interview. “I was very happy because there was no lack of food for my children.”
The AJC is not publishing Zindy’s last name, at her request, because of her immigration status.
Devarez said that though many families have struggled to reapply for free and reduced meals, some members of the Hispanic community likely had a particularly difficult time, both because of language barriers and, for those who are undocumented, long-standing fears about deportation.
Many people who are undocumented or in mixed-status families, where some have citizenship and others don’t, are often wary of submitting government forms, organizers said.
“It’s really difficult to believe that data is not going to be shared with another federal agency that could potentially be used against them,” said Jeannie Myers, academic and outreach director at the child services organization Los Niños Primero.
In addition to families who are eligible for free or reduced meals but don’t apply, organizers said that there are many who struggle financially but do not meet the criteria for assistance.
For the 2023-24 school year, a family of four is eligible for free meals if its annual income is $39,000 and for reduced meals if its annual income is $55,500.
“It’s a huge challenge for a family that’s already hurting and already making difficult decisions about how to budget,” said Santiago Marquez, CEO of the Latin American Association.
At Gwinnett elementary schools, Yant said that meal prices have remained stable for at least the past five years, with full-price breakfast and lunch costing $1.50 and $2.25 respectively. A family with two elementary school children eating both meals at school spends $150 per month.
Urbina said the way school districts communicate with Spanish speakers impacts how well informed they are about meals and other benefits. Some districts, she said, do a great job, while others do not.
Building trust is, according to organizers, a time-consuming process for school administrators.
“A lot of times, if the only time (families) see you is in school, they have a really hard time building trust,” Myers said.
Zindy said that she acts as a type of liaison and often shares information with her neighbors by disseminating emails. Without her, they may not get important information from schools.
For all of the strength that comes from local communities, Urbina stressed the shared responsibility of helping families access resources.
“It’s important that we consider that these kids are, first of all, our kids,” she said. “It’s not like they’re a Latino child, or a white child, or a Black child — all of the children are our children. We’re responsible for them.”
Staff writers Lautaro Grinspan and Josh Reyes contributed to this article.