Thursday, April 17, 2014 · 11:28 a.m.

Hamilton County schools let out last week and will not reopen until Jan. 9.

This is great news for some students. They’re no longer cooped up in classrooms, taking tests or doing homework. But for some, the holidays are a hardship.

There are more than 25,000 public school students who currently receive free or reduced meals in the Hamilton County school system. That’s 58 percent of the public school population who rely on the decades-old federal program. When school is in session, they have access to a reliable source of food. But during the holidays, their access is limited.

"There is no coordination of services for students once they get off for a break or weekend," said Carolyn Childs, director of school nutrition for the Hamilton County Department of Education.

Bridging that gap throughout the county is difficult. Some schools work with civic groups and churches to provide meals to children during the weekends and breaks.

Ninety percent of the students at Barger Elementary are on a free or reduced meal plan. Several staff members there collect food and toys during the holiday season to distribute to students and families in need. The school’s guidance counselor works with the Chattanooga Area Food Bank and Hope for the Inner City, Principal Greg Bagby said.

"It’s scary to think about kids going without food," he said.

Some students also live in food deserts. Those neighborhoods lack traditional grocery stores or supermarkets. So even if their families qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, it can be difficult to purchase healthy, fresh food. In the parts of Chattanooga where the highest concentration of SNAP recipients live, most of the retailers are corner and convenience stores that primarily sell junk food that cannot support a healthy diet, according to a 2009 report by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

The number of students who are eligible for the free and reduced meal program is higher than those actually served by it, Childs said. Almost 18,000 students are automatically enrolled because their names are listed in a Tennessee Department of Human Services database. Others from low-income families must complete an application to become eligible.

Some who are eligible never complete an application, Childs said. For Hispanic families, there are language barriers to overcome. Other students, or their parents, do not want the negative stigma they think comes from having a free or reduced meal plan. As a result, steps have been taken to disguise those who do and do not use the program, she said.

"There’s hunger here—not just statistically, but realistically," Childs said.

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