The Community Eligibility Option, part of President Obama’s 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, reimburses for meals in school districts that have at least 40 percent of students identified as low-income on a variety of factors.
In Richmond County, 78 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunches last year while 22 percent paid full price. Nutrition Director Josephine Mack said the CEO program benefits not only those families who paid for lunches but also those who received free or reduced price meals because it eliminates the application process, cutting paperwork and hassle for parents and school staff.
“This is what’s best for children,” Mack said. “It’s really a long-time dream come true for me to see children attending school receive nutritious meals they deserve.”
One elementary school child eating lunch every day costs his family $352 per year on the paid rate; $396 at the middle and high school level, according to Controller Gene Spires.
“That’s going to go away,” Spires said. “So if a parent had three children, one in elementary and middle and high school, they’re going to save $1,144 in one year.”
Spires asked board members to postpone approving this program when Mack initially presented it in June to make sure participating would not affect other grant programs the district receives. Richmond County receives federal Title I and E-Rate funds based on its free and reduced lunch statistics, but Spires said the logistics of calculating eligibility for those programs going forward has been resolved.
While families qualify for free and reduced lunches based on household income, the CEO program is offered to districts if at least 40 percent of its students receive welfare, food stamps, are homeless or other factors – which applies to 60 percent of Richmond County students, as opposed to the 78 percent receiving free or reduced lunch.
The CEO program is being offered in 11 states as a pilot program but will be expanded nationwide for the 2014-15 school year. Since it opened to Georgia this year, districts are now in the process of applying through the Georgia Department of Education, according to spokesman Matt Cardoza.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, states that implemented the CEO program in the 2011-12 school year increased breakfast participation from 48 percent to 57 percent and lunch participation from 72 percent to 78 percent.
“For us to be able to allow our parents and the children, every child, to have free breakfast and lunch and be able to pass those savings on to a lot of parents that have two or three children, that’s just awesome,” board president Venus Cain said.