DeKalb County students are being offered free breakfast at school this year under the "Universal Breakfast" program. Now, the school board is considering free lunches under the Community Eligibility Provision, a universal meal plan in the National School Lunch Program that permits eligible districts and schools to provide meals to all students at no charge, regardless of economic status.
The board of education will discuss the possibility of implementing the program next year during a workshop in December.
The federal Community Eligibility Provision is one piece of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. "CEP was introduced last February by the State of Tennessee. All students would eat free breakfast and lunch," said Stephanie Walker-Dyer, DeKalb County School Nutrition Supervisor during Thursday night's monthly Board of Education meeting.
Initially, school districts wanting to participate had to commit to an entire year of offering lunches under CEP. Now, they may opt out at any time. Due to the uncertainty as to whether the school system would receive sufficient federal reimbursement revenues to cover the costs, the DeKalb County School Board instead chose to start Universal Breakfast for all this year. "We discussed this in a work session this past summer. We had to sign up by July 1st. Since that date, they have given us an extension to that deadline but I did not bring it back up because we had decided not to participate," said Dyer.
CEP guidelines call for schools to cover the costs of free lunches for all if reimbursement rates are not sufficient. "You could actually start this now (free lunches) in January and if you saw you weren't making any money or we were going in the hole, we could actually stop. We could run it two months and stop. But in my opinion, if we start having free breakfast and lunch for everyone in January and we run it in January and February and then we decide this is costing us more than we thought it was going to and we have to start back paying (requiring payment for meals) it's going to be tough when everything has been free," said Director of Schools Mark Willoughby, during Thursday night's school board meeting.
To determine which schools qualify for free lunches, the federal government uses a formula that takes into account the rates of foster children, homeless children, runaways, migrants and students on food stamps. "To be eligible, we had to have a minimum of 40% of identified students. Identified students are off of our direct certification list which comes from the State of Tennessee. It is students that are on supplemental programs such as SNAP and our homeless, runaway, Head Start, and migrant youth. All of those numbers go together. We did not feel comfortable at 51% (identified students) in being eligible. We would like to have been closer to 60%," said Dyer.
Currently, families must fill out paperwork verifying low income levels to qualify for the federal free and reduced price lunch program. But under the CEP regulations, families would no longer have those hurdles. Still, they would need to fill out a household survey, because a school's participation rate in free and reduced-price lunch programs plays into its ability to compete for federal grants and state funding.
Danny Parkerson, First District School Board member, said he would like to see the free lunch program offered locally because it would save families money. "This is a program that can put (money) back in a family budget at home. It's about like gas prices going down for some of our parents who have two or three kids and are paying a lunch bill. I'd like to have a work session and talk about it. This is something we can give back to our parents," said Parkerson.
Based on the success of Universal Breakfast, Dyer said she is hopeful free lunches can be started next year in the local school system. "In October, compared to last year to this year, DCHS (breakfast participation) has gone up 4%. That is huge for a high school. We're very proud of that number. That is great," she said.
"DeKalb Middle School has gone up 2%. We have since tweaked the menu a little bit and we feel like it will continue to go up in November and December".
"DeKalb West School has gone up 3%. They are just now getting used to hot breakfasts again since their kitchen has been down".
"Northside Elementary has gone up 7%."
"Smithville Elementary School has gone down 2% but they have always been very high participating in breakfast," said Dyer.