Two Districts Apply To Provide Students Free Lunch

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Two Athens County school districts are taking steps toward making school meals more affordable for students in the district.

In their respective meetings on Tuesday evening, both the Federal Hocking Board of Education and the Trimble Local Board of Education approved applications for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) which would provide free lunch to the district’s students. Both districts already provide free breakfast to all students.

The Community Eligibility Provision would allow for both meals to be provided to all students free of charge.

“The goal is to set it up so that every child who wants to eat can eat for free,” said Federal Hocking Supt. George Wood.

“Our only goal is to help families. They are our top priority,” said Trimble Local Schools cafeteria supervisor Kathy Rushing of the possibility of providing free meals to all students.

The program provides districts with a way to provide free meals to all students, provided the district has enough students that would qualify for free lunch.

School eligibility is based on the number of students who meet the “identified” definition. Identified means that students are certified using methods other than the traditional paper form for free and reduced lunches, meaning directly certified. Students who are directly certified for free meals are on the basis of the family’s participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Ohio Works First (OWF) and the extension of benefits to students within the same household. Also included are homeless, runaway, migrant, head start, or foster children with court papers.

To be eligible, according to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), districts and/or schools must: meet a minimum level (40 percent) of identified students for free meals in the year prior to implementing the CEP; agree to serve free lunches and breakfasts to all students; not collect free and reduced price applications from households in participating schools; and agree to cover with non-federal funds any costs of providing free meals to all students above amounts provided in federal assistance. Reimbursement is based on claiming percentages derived from the identified student percentages.

At Federal Hocking, Wood said the program could benefit not only the district by having more kids eat school lunches, but also help families who are already strapped for cash.

“It takes an incredible amount of time to process,” said Wood of the paperwork usually required for the free and reduced meals. Wood noted that the reduction in paperwork will allow for the administrators and others who had helped with the paperwork to have more time to spend with the students.

According to the ODE website, benefits of the CEP include, an innovative option to reduce administrative paperwork and costs, while making it easier for eligible children in low-income communities to receive free meals in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs and it may improve breakfast and lunch participation.

“We first became interested in the program with the treasurer (Cindy Rhonemus) telling me about how Meigs Local had applied for it and been approved,” said Rushing.

While there is a lot of work that goes into the application process, Rushing noted that it is worth it to take the financial burden from the families. Rushing spoke of a recent phone call from a mother with multiple children in the district. She was concerned about being able to pay for lunches throughout the school year and asked about setting up a payment plan to pay during the summer as well.

“She cried when I told her about the program we were looking into,” said Rushing.

“The community recently showed their support to Trimble by passing the tax levy, this is one way we can show them our appreciation,” said Rushing of the free breakfast and lunch that could become available to all students.

Students would still have to pay for any extra items they wish to purchase during lunch according to Rushing.

Districts will have the opportunity to opt out of the program after one year if it is not working for the district as had been expected. Rushing noted that for the program to be successful the district will need to see an increase in kids eating at school.

Federal Hocking’s application was submitted on June 20. Trimble submit its application on Monday. It takes approximately 30 days for the districts to learn if they are approved following the submission.