Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

August 17, 2013

All eligible districts enter program for free meals

Mike James
The Independent

ASHLAND — The Greenup and Lawrence county school districts have joined the ranks of districts offering free meals to all students under a federal program called the community eligibility option.

That means every district in northeastern Kentucky eligible for the program now has signed on. The other districts include Carter County, Elliott County and Fairview Independent.

Schools where 40 percent or more students are eligible under income guidelines for free or reduced-price lunches may use the option.

The option, first available in the 2011-12 school year, eliminates the need for collecting applications or tracking student eligibility. Instead, the district is reimbursed using a formula based on the number of students who are eligible for subsidized meals.

District officials where the program has been in place during previous years say more children are eating meals. They also say reimbursements are covering the cost of the additional meals to children who otherwise would pay full price.

In the Fairview district, the elementary participated last year, and this year the middle and high schools are joining in. Fairview serves breakfast and lunch, and at the elementary, more children have been eating than before, food service director Jo Williams said.

Although it is early in the school year, more children in the upper grades appear to be eating, too. “It’s a fantastic program. It’s a blessing for families not to have to worry about their children eating,” Williams said.

Fairview this year also serves dinner from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., mainly to students involved in after-school activities, and those meals also are part of the program.

Carter County, which has been in the program for three years, hasn’t seen a jump in student meals, but that is probably because meals have changed in that time, according to food service director Sheila Bradshaw.

New federal regulations set higher nutrition standards and require more fresh foods and less high-calorie, high-fat food. Children in more than one district have taken time to get accustomed to the new meal patterns.

Statewide statistics show a dip in children eating school meals after the menu changes, except for districts that have the community eligibility option, Bradshaw said.

Greenup is adopting the program for breakfast and lunch this year in all its schools, business manager Scott Burchett said. Only one of its schools, Greysbranch Elementary, would not be eligible as an individual school, but its students will still get the free meals.

The district hopes more children eat because the reimbursements will offset the loss from full-pay students, he said. Breakfast participation is definitely up, and more students appear to be eating lunch as well, he said.

“If we break even, that will be fine with us. It’s a great opportunity for students and their parents,” he said.

The free breakfasts and lunches could save a full-pay family more than $500 per year per child, Lawrence County Superintendent Mike Armstrong said recently. Lawrence opted into the program this year for the first time.

 MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.