School district to take time in considering free-meals program

The Richmond County school district is likely to go slow in considering a federal program that would offer free breakfast and lunch to all its students.

Josephine Mack, the school nutrition director, presented information to the Richmond County Board of Education on Tuesday regarding the Community Eligibility Option, which was opened to Georgia school districts this year.

Under the option, now offered as a pilot program in 11 states, the federal government reimburses districts with a high percentage of low-income students for all breakfast and lunch meals served. Mack said the district would not lose money by participating and eliminates the application process for free and reduced-price lunches, reaching more needy students whose families never fill out applications.

“This is a wonderful thing,” Mack said. “What better way to care for children than provide them meals so they’re ready to learn?”

As enticing as the program might appear, Controller Gene Spires said there are technical problems that must be resolved before adopting it. Districts are eligible for the program if at least 40 percent of students receive food stamps or welfare or are homeless or in foster care, for example.

Free and reduced-price lunches are granted mostly on household income. Spires said switching to the option would change statistics that the district uses to apply for grant programs such as Title I and E-Rate, and he wants to be sure those programs will not be lost with the change in calculations.

“We can’t put that kind of money in jeopardy,” Spires said. “While it might help (the nutrition program) it might hurt others.”

Currently, 78 percent of Richmond County students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Mack said the district qualifies for Community Eligibility Option because 60 percent meet the new qualifications.

The program was formed under President Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and was first offered in 2011 to Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan and later expanded to other states. It will be open to all qualified schools in the country for the 2014-15 year.

Because the pilot program will begin in Georgia for the 2013-14 year, districts are in the application process and have not yet approved it. Dorie Nolt, the Georgia Department of Education assistant director of communications, said she does not have evidence that shows participating in the program would affect eligibility for other grant programs; instead, she said, it would offer meals to more children, remove the stigma for kids who receive free lunch and help nutrition programs financially.

“We want to make it easier for districts to get food to the kids who need it and help support learning through good nutrition,” Nolt said. “Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry.”

The Food Research and Action Cen­ter, the country’s leading nonprofit on hunger and malnutrition, conducted a survey in 2012 of the four states using the program. Every district recommended it and many reported an increase in the number of students receiving meals.

The center reported that the U.S. Department of Education will accept the option’s eligibility statistics to determine funding for other grant programs and that districts should not experience a decrease in food service revenue because of a corresponding increase in student participation and lower administrative costs.

Spires said he does not expect the issue to come before the board again this month and is waiting to get confirmation on the safety of the district’s other federal grant programs.

“Right now we’re going to have to wait,” he said.

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