Four area school systems are eligible to participate in a new program this year to provide free meals to more students.
Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee will participate in the initial year of a universal free meal service option that may make it easier for low-income children to receive meals in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.
Of the state’s 174 school districts, 102 — including Danville and Garrard, Lincoln and Mercer counties — qualify.
In Kentucky, districts with one or more schools that have 40 percent or more of students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals qualify for participation in the program.
Under this option, schools use pre-existing data to determine the amount of reimbursement they can claim from USDA. The determination is primarily based on the percentage of households in that community that already are participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.
Schools that use this option agree to provide meals to all children free of charge, and USDA reimburses them for the appropriate amount based on this pre-existing data.
Participating schools will still be responsible for paying the remaining difference between the federal reimbursement amount and the total cost to operate the program, a stipulation which is causing some schools to hesitate.
Danville had one school that qualified for Community Eligibility but has chosen not to participate this year because it would negatively impact the reimbursements on which food services depends, said Margie Dievert, food services director for the school district.
“It’s a totally new program, and it sounds great, but there are a lot of dynamics to it,” she said. “It just really wouldn't be to our benefit to or the benefit of our students.”
However, Danville can opt to participate in the program next year and may choose to do so, Dievert said.
“Sometimes it's good to just sit back and watch and see how other school districts do,” she said.
Lincoln County has six eligible schools and will bring the option before the school board at Monday’s meeting, Director of Operations Ronnie Deatherage said. Then, it will be up to the board to decide whether or not to participate.
The superintendents and food services directors for Mercer and Garrard were out of the office today and could not be reached for comment.
Districts containing eligible schools must notify the Kentucky Department of Education’s Division of School and Community Nutrition of their intent to participate in the 2011-12 school year by July 29.
Agriculture Under Secretary Kevin Concannon urged schools to participate.
“Community Eligibility is a great way for schools to cut through burdensome red tape for themselves and low-income families so that children in high-poverty areas have access to the nutrition they need to learn and thrive," he said in a press release. "Schools will benefit from reduced paperwork, parents will not have to fill out duplicative forms, and children in need will get better access to healthy school meals."
The Community Eligibility Option is among the early reforms enacted as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 13. The act requires the Community Eligibility Option to be phased in over three years and authorizes USDA to select up to three states to participate in the 2011-12 school year. The option will be offered to additional states in successive years and will be available to all states beginning in the 2014-15 school year.
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service oversees the administration of 15 nutrition assistance programs, including National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, that touch the lives of one in four Americans over the course of a year. The programs work in concert to form a national safety net against hunger.