All students in the DeKalb County School System, regardless of income, will have access to free lunches when school begins in August under a federal program the Board of Education has decided to join. But the current rate of students participating in the lunch program has to increase by at least five percent to keep the school's nutrition program from losing money.
During the regular monthly meeting in May, the school board voted to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Community Eligibility Program and offer free lunches starting this fall on a trial basis. If the program is not self supporting, the school board can opt out.
CEP is a universal meal plan under the National School Lunch Program that permits eligible districts and schools to provide meal service to all students at no charge. DeKalb County schools are already offering free breakfasts under the Universal Breakfast Program.
According to Amy Lattimore, School Nutrition Supervisor, rather than collecting and processing individual applications for federal free and reduced priced lunches under the National School Lunch Program, schools would serve all meals at no cost under CEP.
The school system would then be reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students identified as eligible for free meals, one that relies on information from other programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"We are in the National School Lunch Program and we are currently reimbursed for school meals across three categories: paid, free, and reduced. How that works is a "free" child comes through the lunch line and they don't give us any money. The state gives us $3.06 . A "reduced" child comes through the lunch line and they give us 40 cents while the state gives us $2.66. A paying student comes through the lunch line and they give us $1.50 or $1.75 depending on their age range and the state gives us 36 cents. So we're always getting the student payments and the reimbursement combined. That's how we fund our program. With CEP we don't get reimbursed across three categories. They do away with the categories and its through a formula that we would get reimbursed," said Lattimore.
The school system's nutrition program also receives income from a la carte sales, teacher meals, and visitor meals and that would continue under CEP.
While the school system would get a greater reimbursement of funds under CEP, it would no longer receive income from students who are currently paying for their lunches resulting in the nutrition program actually losing money overall unless more students take advantage. Currently school nutrition is self supporting in DeKalb County.
"With CEP we will actually receive more reimbursement but we would no longer receive any student payments. If we serve the same amount of kids with CEP we would lose money. For CEP to work in DeKalb County, participation has to go up. That's how we would make it work. Currently we have about 67% of our students eating lunch with us every day. About 44% are eating breakfast. When we started Universal breakfast we had a 3% increase in participation. We should see a higher increase for lunch but participation has to come up by at least 5% to stay where we are now (self supporting). That's in a perfect world where our a la carte sales stay the same. Our teacher meals stay the same and our visitor meals stay the same. If we don't we'll lose money," said Lattimore.
Should the free lunch program fail to be self supporting, the school board would have to move funds from the general purpose budget to the nutrition program to cover the costs, which could be as much as $3,000 per month. However, the school board could chose to opt out of CEP at any time and stop offering universal free lunches.
If free lunches were stopped under CEP during the midst of the school year, Lattimore said it could create hassles for parents and staff with having to again begin processing free and reduced priced applications so late in the year. "Kids must apply for a free and reduced application or they are directly certified through the state. If we do CEP at the beginning of the year they are not sending in those applications. If we have to stop CEP in mid year because we're losing money, we'll have to get in all those applications in mid year. It'll be a hassle for parents and staff," she said.
Danny Parkerson, First District School Board member, made a motion to start the free lunch program saying it would save families money. Fourth District member Kate Miller offered a second to the motion. All board members voted in favor.