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Today I heard that more than 57% of Georgia’s kids are eligible for free and reduced lunches in public schools. According to statistics on the StateMaster website, Georgia places fifth in the nation in number of eligible kids. While there has been a decrease in students lined up for the reduced lunch (137,133 last year to 111,793 this year), the number of kids eligible for free lunch has soared, increasing by more than 52,000 kids in just one year (up to 850,248 from 797,772). Of those eligible, about 76% enroll.

Think about the need here, and then extrapolate the need for some of those same kids on evenings and weekends, not to mention over the summer, where there may be few food programs to help them and their families. Think about how hard it is to concentrate on school work when your stomach is growling, or think about how much of the fresher, healthier food tends to be more expensive. Also think about how important it is to advocate on behalf of healthy school lunches for all kids, and especially for those for whom it may be their only meal.

(Note: Most of the free and reduced lunch funding comes from the federal level, with the rest made up by state and local dollars.  To qualify for reduced-price lunches, a family of four must make no more than $40,793. For free lunches, the income threshold is $28,665.)

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The Department of Community Health’s program, Children 1st, screens all newborns and children up to age 5 to identify those who are at risk for poor health and developmental outcomes. The program then links families to appropriate services. The Governor’s budget, which seems to propose cutting Children 1st funds to the tune of $2.9 million means that it would be harder for the State to identify at-risk children early, significantly lessening the chance that those kids will grow up healthy and ready for school. The loss of these dollars could also increase the demand and cost of special services by delaying treatment from a time when it would be most effective.

Now, technically, we are not sure that the funding is to be officially axed, but the fact that the Governor’s budget did not allocate a specific program line to Children 1st seems to indicate that those funds for the program are on the chopping block. We hope this is not the case, because such a cut to infant and young child health screenings would most definitely lower school readiness and healthy outcomes for kids, as well as raise assessment and treatment costs.

As advocates for children and families in Georgia, we are concerned about recent attempts within states to scale back vital health care programs for our most vulnerable citizens. The move began with Arizona Governor Brewer’s request to the federal government for a waiver from a regulation that prevents states from cutting some income groups from the Medicaid program. In response, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s spokesperson was quoted by Bloomberg news organization earlier today that while the Governor has not offered specific cuts he “would happily work on such a proposal.”

I am certain our governor is aware that Medicaid helps children ages 0-5 whose families are at or below 133% of the federal poverty level (FPL), (for instance, a family of four which earns a little over $29,000/year). It helps children 6-19 whose family earns at or below 100% of the FPL. I find it hard to believe that in these times of high unemployment, lower wages, and increased family stress, that our leadership would embrace restricting medical coverage for what is a growing percentage of our state’s citizenry. Losing a job equates to a loss of employer-sponsored coverage not just for the adult involved, but for the children of the family as well.

In addition, cutting health care coverage would make it harder for kids to access primary care and manage chronic conditions, which in turn would result in poorer health outcomes and greater costs down the line. I would ask the governor’s staff to consider these impacts before making such a seemingly glib remark.

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