The Bradley County school system has enrolled all three of its eligible schools into a federal program that will allow all students to eat breakfast and lunch at no cost to them.
The county school system has chosen to enroll Park View, Taylor and Waterville Community Elementary Schools in the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program.
The program, which the system is set to take part in for the first time in the 2014-2015 school year, is an initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture that began after the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.
Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel announced at the May 13 meeting of the Bradley County Board of Education that the school system had decided to “pilot” the program this fall at Waterville Community Elementary. Since then, he has announced that the school system has decided to enroll all eligible schools.
Supervisor of Nutrition Services Emily Brown said children whose families have trouble affording meals at school will no longer have to apply to be part of the existing free and reduced lunch program because all children will receive lunches at no cost to them, regardless of their families’ incomes.
“All students are able to have breakfast and lunch at school,” Brown said. “It removes the stigma of a ‘free student’ and a ‘paid student.’”
The three Bradley County schools that are set to take part in the Community Eligibility Program are able to be part of it because of the percentage of students who have already qualified for free or reduced-cost meals.
According to the USDA’s document that lists procedures for local school systems, schools “must meet a minimum level (40 percent) of identified students for free meals in the year prior to implementing the CEP.”
Only three Bradley County schools met that criterion. However, the Cleveland City school system recently announced it had enrolled all of its schools because they all met eligibility requirements.
The USDA also dictates that schools must “agree to serve free lunches and breakfasts to all students” and do away with the application process for free and reduced meals. The local school system must also “agree to cover with non-Federal funds any costs of providing free meals to all students above amounts provided in Federal assistance.”
The amount the school system will receive to give children lunches under the new program is determined by a “free claiming percentage.” “The identified student percentage is used to determine reimbursements for both breakfast and lunch,” the program dictates. “This percentage multiplied by 1.6 is the free claiming percentage.”
That basically means children at Park View, Taylor and Waterville Community will be encouraged to partake in full meals rather than just items served a la carte, Brown said. The USDA program percentage as it applies to Bradley County schools will only reimburse the costs of full meals that meet school nutrition requirements — not extras.
Students wanting extra items or second helpings not included in regular meals will have to pay for them out of pocket or with money placed in accounts for them.
Brown explained that all schools have set menus each day of the school year to make sure they meet federal nutrition requirements. A typical meal might be a sandwich made with chicken and a whole grain bun served with things like steamed veggies, fresh fruit and milk.
County school lunch prices for the 2013-2014 were $2.05 for lunch and $1.25 for breakfast at elementary schools. Middle and high school students have been charged $2.30 for lunch and $1.25 for breakfast.
The acceptance of applications for reduced cost meals brought the prices down to 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast, regardless of a students’ grade levels.
Brown stressed that free and reduced lunch program applications will still be available at all the other elementary schools and the middle schools and high schools that cannot be part of the Community Eligibility Provision.
“We want to ensure every child is able to eat,” Brown said.
The application forms are available at each school and on the school system’s website, www.bradleyschools.org, and there are no enrollment deadlines. Brown said a student could potentially enroll in the program with just a couple weeks left in a school year if their family’s financial situation changes and makes that student eligible.
Brown stressed that it is important for all students to be able to eat breakfast and lunch to help them concentrate on what they are learning in school, and some are not able to get the nutrition they need at home.
While only three county schools are able to take part in the program, she said she hopes the public will not attach any “stigmas” to the schools for being “the three poor ones.”
“These are three very good schools,” Brown said.
Whether or not more schools become eligible for the program in the future will depend on the income distributions of the students’ families. If the number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches rises to 40 percent or higher at a given school, that school could join the three already taking part.