ELIZABETHTOWN — Beginning Aug. 25, students in all Bladen County Schools will have the opportunity to eat breakfast and lunch at school at no cost, even if families have the financial means to pay. North Carolina is one of many states to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision program.
The meal program, more than three years in the making, is part of a federal initiative that aims to make it easier for students from low-income families to receive free meals by eliminating the need to fill out paperwork, including potentially invasive questions about income.
The cost of the meals will be covered by the federal government.
With the 2010-2011 school year, Bladen County Schools began participating in the Universal Free Breakfast program which allows all students to eat breakfast at no cost. It eliminated an awkward socioeconomic divide that unfolded in some schools every morning, where low-income students would receive free milk, pastries, or other items in their classrooms, while more affluent students often went without. At lunch, such a divide is generally less obvious because students use an ID card or a number when going through the cafeteria line, making it difficult for classmates to know whether meals are free or being charged to an account.
In some cases, though, students pay with cash.
Now, the district is expanding the Universal Free program to include the CEP program whereby every student is eligible to participate in breakfast and lunch regardless of income status.
“We have seen increases in the number of students eating breakfast over the last several years because of the universal breakfast project,” said Child Nutrition Director Amy Stanley. “Every child has a right to healthy, nutritious meals in school, and when we saw a chance to offer these healthy lunch meals at no cost to them, we jumped at the chance.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released data reporting high levels of food insecurity and hunger across the country. In Bladen County, nearly 30 percent of children live in food insecure households.
The CEP program was enacted as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and provides universal meal service to children in high poverty areas. CEP is an alternative to collecting, approving and verifying household eligibility applications for free and reduced price eligible students in high poverty Local Education Agencies. If at least 40 percent of a school’s students are directly certified for free meal benefits, the entire school qualifies for the option.
“We know that well fed children are able to focus in class and ultimately do better in school,” said Superintendent Robert Taylor. “We are unsure of the entire scope of this opportunity but we know that it will have a tremendous impact on our ability to feed Bladen County children both a healthy breakfast and lunch for free.”
About three-quarters of Bladen’s 4,800 students or 74.44 percent last school year qualified for a free or a reduced-price lunch. A reduced lunch cost just 40 cents, compared with the full price of $2 in elementary schools (pre-K through fifth grade) and $2.20 in middle and high schools (grades six through 12).
School officials say more students would have qualified for the perk if their parents had filled out an application.
Parents fail to do so for a variety of reasons, such as the forms being printed in a language they cannot read or getting lost in a mountain of paperwork and notices that students bring home.
The problem can come with a steep financial price for families and the schools alike.
Because many schools are reluctant to turn away students if they do not have the money, cafeteria workers charge the lunch to an account. A principal or another school employee will seek payment from parents or guardians — putting them in the awkward position of becoming bill collectors.
To participate, a certain percentage of students in a district must qualify for free meals. That threshold — in light of the absence of student applications for free meals — is developed through a complex formula that includes such factors as the percentage of families in a community who receive food stamps.
Bladen County school officials are hoping more students will eat the lunches now that they are free, instead of bringing something from home, setting a goal of a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in participation.