Accomack and Northampton Schools Consider ‘Free Lunch for All’ Programs

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By Stefanie Jackson – Accomack County Public Schools may soon provide free breakfast and lunch for every student through a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food and nutrition service agency.

The program is Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), and it’s such a “huge” development that the entire school division qualifies for it, Accomack schools Director of Finance Beth Onley said.

A school or school division will qualify for the program if at least 40% of its students receive social service benefits such as Medicaid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps), and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), giving students “direct certification” for the USDA program.

About 55% of Accomack public school students have direct certification, and a total of 64% qualified for the free and reduced lunch program this year.

Because the school division qualifies for the USDA program through direct certification, parents will no longer need to fill out applications for their children to get free breakfast and lunch.

With every student getting breakfast and lunch for free, Accomack schools would no longer have to worry about bad debt from unpaid lunch bills, which was about $28,000 this year, Onley said.

With USDA’s help, Accomack schools could provide free meals to students without losing money, but only if participation in breakfast and lunch increases.

About 36% of students eat school breakfast; that number must increase by at least six percentage points. About 56% of students eat school lunch; that number must increase by at least eight percentage points.

Onley proposed two strategies for increasing participation in school breakfast.

At the elementary level, a program called Breakfast in the Classroom would be implemented. Kids are more likely to eat breakfast when they see their peers getting breakfast in class, Onley said.

When Newport News implemented the program, the number of children who ate school breakfast doubled. Accomack’s numbers are expected to more than double, Onley said.

The middle schools will offer Grab and Go breakfasts that students can pick up at kiosks in convenient locations – typically in the halls and cafeteria – and take to class to eat.

The school board unanimously approved the continued development of the free breakfast and lunch program at their July 16 meeting.

In Northampton County, even more students qualified for the school division’s free and reduced meal program this year – 76%.

Northampton schools Director of Operations Chris Truckner said when he began working for the school division nine years ago, the number of students who qualified for free and reduced lunch was about 67%, and now that number stays between 75% and 78%.

“I’m a huge advocate for making sure the hungry (are) fed,” he said at the June 13 Northampton school board meeting.

But he isn’t yet confident that the school division can participate in USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision program and not lose money.

One of Truckner’s concerns is that Northampton schools’ lunch periods are not long enough to accommodate the increased number of students who would eat school lunch if it was free to everyone.

Chief Financial Officer Brook Thomas, who has analyzed data from the cafeteria point-of-sale systems, said it takes about 11 seconds to serve each high school student and 15.5 seconds to serve each elementary school student.

At Northampton High School, by the time the last student is served lunch, there are about eight to 11 minutes left in the lunch period for that student to finish the meal, Truckner said.

Sometimes there were only four minutes left in the lunch period when the last student was served, Thomas added.

Extending the lunch period would mean cutting into instructional time, Truckner said.

It would also affect recess, Superintendent Eddie Lawrence added.

The program could also affect transportation, depending on how early students would need to arrive at school for breakfast, he said.

School board member Maxine Rasmussen suggested adding Grab and Go options at lunch to speed up service times. Northampton has already implemented Grab and Go breakfasts at the middle and high school.

Truckner called it a “great idea” but added that USDA has strict guidelines for school lunches, which must be followed.

Northampton schools will have to hire more staff to accommodate the additional students who will participate in school breakfast and lunch if the division participates in the Community Eligibility Provision program.

Truckner cautioned that it would be problematic if the school division implemented the program and later decided it was no longer sustainable and ended it. “You can always give somebody something, but when you take it back, well, it’s a time.”

Lawrence agreed the program and its implementation require more thorough investigation “before we jump off a cliff we can’t climb back up on.”

A committee will do the research as part of the update to Northampton schools’ comprehensive improvement plan, and the school board will revisit the subject during the next school year.

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