By Stefanie Jackson – The “free lunch for all” program is back on the menu for the Northampton school board’s consideration as of its Nov. 14 meeting.
“This issue’s just not going away, and if the board of supervisors is willing to ensure us that we’re not going to lose that money … I don’t see any other way around it,” said Superintendent Eddie Lawrence.
The school board was criticized by parents, community members, and county supervisors for the decision made in June not to implement a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which provides free breakfast and lunch to all students at qualifying schools, with no applications to fill out.
Schools may participate if at least 40% of their students qualify through direct certification, meaning they receive government assistance such as food stamps or Medicaid.
As of 2019, 58.5% of Northampton students are directly certified.
But there’s a catch. Northampton schools would need 62.5% of its students to be directly certified for the division to receive 100% reimbursement for the meals it serves.
School division staff want to achieve the 100% reimbursement rate because school food service programs are intended to be self-sustaining, not operate at a loss to be covered by local government.
If Northampton schools had implemented the CEP program between 2015 and 2017, they would have had an annual budget shortfall of about $170,000.
By 2019, the projected shortfall had fallen to about $25,000.
Supervisors admonished school board members for not asking for the $25,000.
The school division would also need around $28,000 to hire two part-time cafeteria workers to handle the expected increased student demand for school breakfast and lunch.
Lawrence said he and members of the school board had recently received emails from Supervisor John Coker stating, “the board of supervisors is willing to subsidize our lunch program,” up to about $53,000, the combined cost of the projected budget shortfall and the two cafeteria workers.
Lawrence asked the school board to rescind their votes to delay implementation of the “free lunch for all” program.
Northampton supervisors had learned from USDA that the school division could apply for a waiver allowing CEP to be implemented now instead of at the beginning of the next school year.
A request for a waiver had been written and signed and was waiting approval by the school board so the document could be submitted.
Lawrence said there is no guarantee that the waiver will be approved.
“If they don’t act on it, at least then we can say we applied,” he said.
Northampton schools Chief Financial Officer Brook Thomas said it was “interesting” that USDA gave county supervisors information on the waiver program.
She had recently contacted the Virginia Department of Education and “they were unaware of a waiver program,” including the director of school nutrition programs.
School division staff are attempting to work out strategies for feeding more students breakfast and lunch during regularly scheduled mealtimes without lengthening the school day.
Director of Operations Chris Truckner has also spoken with Accomack County Public Schools staff about how they implemented the CEP program this year.
They are purchasing pre-packaged breakfasts that meet USDA’s nutrition guidelines and allow students to be served more quickly.
The pre-packaged meals of cold items like milk and cereal are expensive, but they help ensure every student gets served, Truckner said.
At the elementary schools, the meals are delivered to the classrooms so that “every kid gets breakfast as soon as they walk in the door.”
Letters have been sent to the homes of Northampton students who recently became eligible for the division’s current free and reduced school lunch program.
Nearly 81% of all Northampton public school students qualify for the program.