School District considers free meal program for all students at several public schools

The Board Members of the Hernando County School District are supportive of the district implementing the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that reimburses the district for providing free breakfast and lunch to students at qualified schools.

Lori Drenth, Hernando County School District Food Service Coordinator described the Community Eligibility Provision or “CEP.” The purpose she states, “is to provide meals at no cost to large groups whether it’s schools [or] school communities.” The provision is part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

The district considered implementing the program in the 2013-2014 school year, but Ms. Drenth explained at that time the program was very new and there were some issues that needed to be worked out relating to Title I benefits. Additionally, in Hernando County, not all of our schools are eligible for the program which makes implementation a little more complicated.

Eligibility is based on the number of “direct certified” students. A student is direct certified through a process that matches the student to SNAP or other agency records. Basically the greater the number of students the school has that receive assistance through agencies like SNAP, the higher the school’s Identified Student Percentage or ISP. To qualify for the CEP program, schools need a minimum ISP of 40%.

“We felt like CEP would work very well for our school district,” explained Ms. Drenth at the March 21, 2017 School District Workshop.

“I’m looking at implementing that at no cost. So it would be breakfast and lunch at no cost to nine elementary schools, two K-8 schools, four middle schools and Endeavor and Discovery Academies. The only exclusions for meals at no cost would be the five high schools, Chocachatti, Challenger and the charter schools.”

Ms. Drenth explained that the high schools, Chocachatti and Challenger do not meet the requirements for direct certified students.

Currently there is a free and reduced lunch/meal application that families fill out and must qualify for. But under the CEP program there is no application process. Every student qualifies for free breakfast and lunch by just attending a school within the CEP program. In the schools that are not within the CEP, there would still be free and reduced applications.

“At the district level… we’re looking at a reduced administrative burden because we don’t have as many free and reduced applications. At the school level, Ms. Drenth stated, “All students are on an equal level when it comes to getting meals at no cost.” She said lines would be more efficient since there is no exchange of money and there wouldn’t be a need for alternate meals for those with a negative account balance.

At the household level, she says parents are saving money since they don’t need to send their children to school with money to purchase breakfast or lunch.

Under the CEP, the school district expects about a 30% revenue increase in breakfast and a 20% revenue increase in lunch due to an expected increase in participation.

There would be an increase in costs in terms of food since they would be serving more students and potentially increased costs to labor. However, Ms. Drenth believes that would be easily offset by the “excess resources.”

Board Member Linda Prescott was concerned about possible changes to policy at the Federal Level which would have consequences for child nutrition programs. Ms Drenth responded, “There is some talk of moving the threshold from 40% to 60% to be able toqualify for CEP. That would not affect Hernando County. We would still meet that threshold easily.”

Ms. Drenth also explained that the data gathered for qualification (on April 1st) is good for a four year time period.

Out of the 67 school districts in Florida, there are 39 with a partial or full implementation of the CEP program. There are currently 22 public school districts in Florida who are qualified for a CEP, but are not implementing one (including Hernando County). Four school districts are nearly eligible to participate (ISP of greater than or equal to 30%). That leaves two districts that are not eligible: St. Johns County School District and Okaloosa School District.

“It has been an overwhelming success across the nation,” said Ms. Drenth.

School Board Member Susan Duval brought up a number of questions about implementing the CEP. Points that were clarified by Ms. Duval’s questions include:

• Non CEP schools would still be eligible for the afterschool snack program

• The school district will continue the current summer program that feeds all students for free.

• The CEP program would be fully funded through federal funds and CEP funds can be expended at non CEP schools.

• Students would still have to pay for ‘a la carte’ items.

One concern that Ms. Duval pointed out was the current efforts in the state legislature to limit the number of SNAP participants, which would affect the number of direct certifications statewide and the ISP’s of districts.

The board came to a consensus to put the CEP on the agenda for the next regularly scheduled school board meeting in order to formally approve it.