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Costs prohibit SCPS from offering free lunches

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Federal program that provides free lunches for all students doesn’t reimburse enough for Shelby County to join

By Ashley Sutter

It’s an unfortunate yet accurate fact that many children go throughout their school day with an empty and growling stomach.

But for many students across America, those tummies are being tamed, thanks to The Community Eligibility Option, a reform from the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010.

The program provides school lunches at no charge to all students at participating schools, regardless of the family’s income.

While Jefferson and Fayette county public schools jumped on board over the summer, Shelby County Public Schools Food Nutrition Service Coordinator Evell Coomer said financially the program wouldn’t work for Shelby County.

“I sliced and diced and tried every way to get our students to qualify,” she said. “We just don’t have a high enough percentage.”

In order to be eligible for the program, a school district must have at least 40 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch.

While the meals are free to children, the schools are financially responsible up front for the food and are reimbursed based upon their amount of eligibility.

With financial paperwork no longer being required by parents, eligibility is determined by the percentage of those in Head Start, are homeless, migrant or living in households that receive SNAP/Food Stamps, TANF cash assistance or the Food Distribution on Indian Reservation benefits. The percentage of students eligible based on these standards is multiplied by 1.6 and results in the amount of reimbursement of meals at the free rate, which can be as high as $3.  The remaining meals are reimbursed at the paid rate, which only goes as high as 35 cents.

In Shelby County, nine out of 12 schools are eligible, resulting in 51 percent of all Shelby County students currently receiving free or reduced lunches.

Of those, 82 percent of the meals would be reimbursed at the free rate and only 18 percent would be at the paid rate.

While SCPS qualifies for the assistance, Coomer said that number is not high enough for participation to financially make sense for the district.

“We have done a study on that option based on the eligibility of students that would be [directly certified to receive some form of state assistance],” she said. Coomer explained that the numbers would be too low and the difference would have to be supplemented from the district.

“If we fall short financially, the district would have to supplement,” she said.  “That would be taking money from the kids and we don’t want to do that.”

“We’d have to have 80 percent and we just don’t have it.”

That number works for Jefferson County, where Coomer said nearly 80 percent of the students in participating schools directly qualify.

Considering the schools are already receiving a majority of their reimbursements at the free rate, school districts like JCPS that already have a high percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches will have little issues with the reimbursement. Yet, districts falling below or near the 40 percent threshold serve little or no benefit to the program, as they will lose money without sufficient reimbursement.

However, if it helps create a balance in reimbursement funding, individual schools can participate or entire districts can bundle together.

Coomer said she loved the program and tried to no avail to make it work.

Recognizing the need for a nutrition program in the district, Coomer did discuss other programs the district offers.

“We have an after school snack program that feeds kids that are participating in after school activities,” she said.

There is also a summer feeding program provided by the district.  Shelby County and Collins high schools, Shelbyville/Shelby County Parks and Rec., Meadow Ridge Apartments, and Northside Early Childhood Center all provide free meals to children over the summer.

Coomer said the district is also researching other programs like Breakfast in the Classroom.

And while she would love for Shelby County to adopt a program like the JCPS Bus Stop Café– a school bus turned moving cafeteria that provides free meals throughout Jefferson County – Coomer said Shelby County does not have the funding for something of that financial magnitude.

However, free or paid, she said parents can rest assured that the meals their students are receiving are healthy and delicious, as Shelby County continues to exceed the state and federal regulations.

Since the establishment of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010, the standards have changed every year and Coomer said they will continue to do so until 2022.

“It’s like a moving target,” she said, adding that this year the regulations changed requiring that all bread related food products must be whole grain.

“We try to feed the kids healthy foods and tasty foods, too,” she said, noting that their meals are certified. “We meet and exceed our regulations.”