Blount County Schools has expanded a federal provision that will allow every child at three participating schools to receive free meals.
“We were extremely pleased with our pilot year,” said Karen Helton, the district’s school nutrition coordinator. “Lanier Elementary and Rockford Elementary saw significant increases in their participation rates, and we hope to see similar results this year.”
Lanier Elementary and Rockford Elementary participated this past school year in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Both schools will continue to provide free breakfasts and lunches for every child.
In June, the Blount County Board of Education also attached Mary Blount Elementary School to its list of participating schools. Families don’t have to fill out free- and reduced-price meal applications or sign up for the program.
All meals must meet National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) standards. Thus, students won’t receive free a la carte or snack items.
“We’ve been successful in reaching students and their students,” Helton said. “Lanier Elementary had a participation rate between 95 percent and 98 percent for the school year. Its breakfast participation rate was nearly 100 percent, and the lunch participation rate was about 90 percent. Some students just preferred to bring their lunches.
“Rockford Elementary had a participation rate nearing 90 percent,” she said. “We’ve spent time looking at both programs and think that Lanier Elementary’s higher rate was a result of its model. Lanier’s staff brought entire classrooms to the cafeteria, and everybody ate together. Rockford Elementary implemented the traditional model in which students were dropped off and picked up their own meals.”
Officials hope to see a comparable increase in Mary Blount Elementary’s participation rate, Helton said. “Mary Blount Elementary is similar to Lanier Elementary and Rockford Elementary. All three schools implemented a universal breakfast before participating in the Community Eligibility Provision. Since the schools are similar, we hope to see similar results this year.”
‘Can’t teach a hungry child’
Blount County’s mission is simple, according to school officials.
“We’re going to feed a lot of kids who previously didn’t get to eat,” said Troy Logan, the district’s school nutrition supervisor, in a June interview. “Mary Blount had 65 percent of its student population qualify for free and reduced-price meals this school year. However, we know those numbers didn’t tell the whole story. We had families who qualified but didn’t return paperwork. We also had families who didn’t qualify for free- and reduced-price meals, but they’re still struggling. We’re excited to offer this program to them.
“Our motto is: ‘You can’t teach a hungry child.’ The food service department wants to play a role in education. We want to get them started with breakfast, then provide them with a good lunch.”
Families should be aware they will need to complete free- and reduced-price meal applications for any child who doesn’t attend one of the participating schools.
Some local costs
Blount County Schools will be reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students identified as eligible for free meals using direct certification and other lists of eligible students.
All children living in households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance can bypass the standard process and be “directly certified” for free school meals.
Any costs for serving these meals in excess of the federal reimbursement must be paid from nonfederal sources. Blount County will absorb these costs, but it appears at this point that the district has no additional local cost for the pilot year due to high participation rates at both Lanier Elementary and Rockford Elementary.
CEP’s intent is to eliminate the administrative burden of collecting household applications and to improve access to free school meals in eligible high poverty school districts and schools. Logan, who also serves as the district’s fiscal administrator, advised that it has simplified accounting and claims processes as well.
“However, the greatest benefit to our district is the potential for increased student participation,” Logan said. “Our ultimate goal is to feed all children at these three schools.”
Matthew Stewart-The Daily Times