Program will provide all elementary students with free breakfast and lunch
Apparently, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Education, Switzerland County elementary students — and possibly more — will receive free school breakfast and lunch. The program will launch with the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, and could initially last four years.
“The CEP Program is the Community Eligibility Provision, and it’s by the USDA,” Switzerland County Superintendent of Schools Rod Hite said. “You have to be 40-percent direct serve. To be 40-percent direct serve, that’s foster children, people who qualify for Medicare and Medicaid benefits, and others. There’s a whole list of qualified benefits. It’s income based.”
Hite said that if 40-percent of the student population is qualified in any one building, then all of the students in that building are eligible for the program, which provides free breakfast and lunch throughout the school year to all of those students, regardless of whether or not the students fall into that 40-perent.
“If you have a building that’s 60-percent, but if you average it with the other building and both of them are 40-percent, you’re there,” Hite said. “Both of our elementaries hit 40-percent, and so with both elementaries hitting 40-percent, all students in K-6 are eligible for the free meals.”
Hite said that the corporation went through a food service audit earlier in the year, and when that audit took place, he and Director of Food Services Gayla Bullock began to talk about this program as the results of the audit came to light.
“They looked are our numbers and they told us that we were really close,” Hite said. “They said we qualified at one elementary and were really close at the other one. So Gayla, weekly, would go through and run our numbers, counting every move in and every move out until we hit the numbers; and we made sure that when we hit the numbers we reported it right away. So they then came in and certified both elementary schools.”
Hite said that, through the program, the elementary schools are eligible to be in the program for up to four years.
“Once you commit, you have to be in the program for at least one year,” he said. “They have a calculator that they put you into, and that calculator tells you how many current meals you’re serving, what the current cost is, and how many meals you would need to serve to be able to have the program make money.”
And the financial aspect of the program — which on the surface looks simple — is a huge consideration for the school corporation as it moves forward potentially into future years.
“If we stay at the current meals served, the program would actually lose money for the school corporation,” the superintendent said. “You have fixed costs. Your employee costs are the same. Your food prep cost is the same, but obviously there may be an increase in total food usage, but they reimburse you at a federally-given number.”
Hite said that, currently, approximately 52-percent of elementary students eat a school lunch on any given day. The others either bring their lunch or don’t eat lunch at all.
“What we found is that we need to increase our school lunches by six students per grade level eating lunch in both elementary schools for the program to break even or make money; and we need an increase of two students per grade level eating breakfast,” Hite said. “Once we went through and looked at the numbers, we were a little nervous about it in the beginning, but we went to Clarksville, which just implemented this program, and they had great success with it as long as they promoted it really well. The key is getting kids to go through and take a tray and eat their lunch.”
The superintendent said that this doesn’t mean that a student can’t pack something separate or bring an individual food item that they like to school. He said that students are welcome to bring something along and eat it in conjunction with their school lunch if they choose to do that.
Hite also said that, logistically, the staff has found that they can change some things in the morning that will give more students access to the cafeteria and the opportunity to eat breakfast before the school day begins.
“We’re working with the elementary principals now to try and figure out how each student has some time alloted to get into the cafeteria,” he said. “With bus drop offs and what-not, there’s not always enough time for kids to get down to breakfast.”
The superintendent said that he and Bullock and others working on the program feel confidant that they will be able to increase the numbers by at least six students per grade level eating lunch now that it’s 100-percent free for all students.
Again: Hite stressed that this isn’t income driven — every student in grades K-6 at Switzerland County Elementary School and Jefferson-Craig Elementary School will have free breakfast and lunch. The students will still swipe their card, but it will purely be to track the numbers. Parents will no long have to put money into an account for breakfast and lunch. Hite did add that there will still be charges for students wanting a second tray or students making ala carte purchases.
“It used to be that kids would have the ability to go and set with their buddy, so a student might think, ‘My buddy packs his lunch, I’m going to go and set with him and not eat lunch’. Now they’re going to let every kid go through the lunch line and still be able to set with whom they want. I’m leaving that up to the principals to figure out how they’re going to do that seating arrangement.”
If all of this sounds good, the program may also be expanding before the school year begins.
“We actually ran the numbers again right at the end of the school year, and we actually got the numbers to be able to expand the program to the seventh and eighth grades at the middle school,” Hite said. “We’ve called the state, but the state can’t verify it until June 25th, so we can’t officially say that the junior high will be included, but we have every reason to believe that it will be certified on June 25th and the seventh and eighth grades will also be included in the free meal program by the time the school year begins.
“I really believe that by school roll out, we’ll have the go-ahead and the ability to go K-8, which would be great,” Hite said.
And the high school?
“At the high school, you have fewer and fewer kids, traditionally across the state of Indiana, who even sign up for free and reduced. You see it higher in the elementaries and then the number dwindles in the high school. You see students go without lunch and those kinds of things,” the superintendent said. “With this program, it eliminates any of the free and reduced factor when it comes to lunches, because every kid goes through point of sale and they don’t have to deposit money or put in their lunch account number. At the high school those percentages tend to go down.”
Although the meals of every student will be free, the superintendent said that it is still very important that parents and guardians continue to fill out the federal free and reduced forms, because along with meals those forms also provide for free and reduced textbook fees for students.
Hite said that once the certification is in place, it can initially continue for up to four years, with the trigger being whether or not the school corporation is losing money by being a part of the program. They federal agencies will not rescind the eligibility during that time, it is purely a school corporation decision.
The best way to keep free meals in place for at least four years? Encourage your students to go through the line and get a school lunch every day.
“If we don’t have enough people utilizing the program, and it’s costing a large amount of money to the cafeteria fund, then obviously we’d have to discontinue the program,” the superintendent said. “But if we find that it’s a success, and we have enough people enrolling in the program and making sure we maintain our enrollment in the program, we can actually continue the program beyond four years if we re-apply.”
And the savings?
Hite said that currently an elementary school student pays $1.10 for breakfast and $2.35 for lunch, that means that if a student eats breakfast and lunch everyday, that’s a savings of $621 per child for parents.
If the program expands to the junior high, breakfast is $1.10 and lunch is $2.45. A junior high student eating breakfast and lunch each school day will save those parents $639.
For parents will more than one child in school, the savings for the year will exceed $1,000 per school year.
“It’s a win-win, because I don’t feel personally that students can learn in the classroom if they’re hungry,” Hite said. “If they’re able to have a good meal when they’re at school, I think it’s going to raise attendance and it’s going to provide a big savings for parents.”