More schools able to offer free lunches

For many parents, back to school means back to the bank as new clothes, new shoes, school supplies and more are needed to start the year. Families with multiple school-aged children are under even more financial pressure as September nears. However for some parents, there is one particular expense that can be eliminated from the back-to-school budget: lunch.

Under the Community Eligibility Program, school districts in high poverty areas are eligible to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all students in the district, regardless of individual household income. Since the program began in 2014, more and more districts are applying for the CEP; in New York state nearly half of all CEP eligible or near-eligible schools have adopted the policy, according to the most recent available data from the Food Research & Action Center.

In 2010, the CEP was authorized by Congress as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and was phased in over a period of three years in select states, of which New York was one. While schools have offered free and reduced lunches based on household income for many years through the National School Lunch Program, the CEP streamlines the process for school districts and eliminates a significant amount of paperwork. To qualify for the CEP, 40 percent or more of a district’s student population must be identified through means-tested certifications such as Head Start, Medicaid, SNAP or TANF. Once approved, a school’s application qualifies the district for four years, plus an optional grace year, provided at least 30 percent of the district’s population still meets the income requirements. School districts are then reimbursed based on the actual percentage of eligible students times a multiplier of 1.6. For example, a school district with 40 percent eligibility would receive 64 percent full reimbursement for meals. For most districts, the reimbursement received from the CEP is significantly higher than the cost of implementing the program, especially since other funding sources may be available for non-reimbursed costs.

According to most recent CEP eligibility data from the 2016-2017 school year, every school district in northern Chautauqua County is near-eligible (30 up to 40 percent) or eligible for the CEP. Chautauqua Lake, Forestville, Fredonia and Westfield report the lowest percentages at 32 percent, 30 percent, 32 percent and 32 percent respectively. The four districts with the highest percentages are Brocton, Cassadaga Valley, Dunkirk and Silver Creek at 41 percent, 42 percent, 62 percent and 44 percent, respectively. Gowanda Central School District also qualifies for the program, and the district began participating last school year.

How much do parents pay for their children to eat at school? On the higher end of the spectrum, a full-price middle/high school lunch at Chautauqua Lake is $2.35 this year, and a full-price breakfast is $1.50. Families with two students enrolled in the middle/high school eating breakfast and lunch daily faced an average cost of $167 a month. By comparison, Fredonia Central School has the least expensive meals, as last school year, a high school breakfast cost $1 and a high school lunch cost $1.35. Families with two high school students enrolled at Fredonia would pay about $101 a month for breakfast and lunch daily.

Brocton Central School District is participating in the CEP beginning this school year, and Superintendent Jason Delcamp is optimistic about the benefits. “We have a number of families just outside the threshold for free and reduced lunch that now qualify for free meals. A number of parents have reached out to us about how happy they are that we’re implementing the program,” Delcamp stated. Delcamp also noted the “downside” of CEP eligibility. “It just shows how many families are struggling in our community. The fact that our district qualifies means there is a real economic struggle in this area.” Delcamp went on to explain that Brocton Tri-Church Parish has been providing many students with bags of food to take home on Friday for the weekend and that this is the third year the school has been partnering with the church to do so.

Dunkirk City School District is starting its fourth year with the program, and according to Superintendent Dr. James Tracy, it’s been a great benefit to families. “I think it’s a wonderful program,” Tracy said. “The beauty of it is that every student gets a free breakfast and a free lunch, including those who may just miss the cut-off for free and reduced meals.” Tracy referenced Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the foundation of which is made up of basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. “As educators, we’ve known for years that if students are not fed well, they’re not able to learn well. Hungry kids just don’t learn, and this program solves that problem.”

In addition to free meals during the school year, students enrolled in the district’s summer school program also receive free meals through the 21st Century Grant. Tracy explained that some students are provided with food to take home with them for the weekend, and that the district is looking to partner with the Salvation Army to expand this effort for more students in the district. “We want to do everything we can to help families. There are many in our district who are economically disadvantaged, and if students eat well and learn well, education is a way out of that situation.”

Many districts, including Dunkirk, still offer a paid meal option for those students who would like to purchase a second lunch or a la carte items. However, under the CEP all students are offered a free breakfast and a free lunch daily.

Cassadaga Valley recently announced their participation in the CEP for the coming school year, and the Silver Creek Central School Board voted to approve an application for the CEP at one of their school board meetings earlier this summer.

Unfortunately, SCCS’s application fell through, according to Superintendent Todd Crandall. “We ran the preliminary numbers and it looked favorable. But based on the most recent data, we didn’t meet the minimum threshold requirement.” Crandall went on to explain that if the district moved ahead with the CEP, they would have had to pay over $50,000 out of pocket to offset the amount that would not be reimbursed by the program.

“If we met the threshold, we definitely would have taken advantage of the program,” Crandall explained. “There are probably a lot of students in our district that don’t take advantage of the free and reduced lunch program for whatever reason. This would have eliminated the paperwork and ensured that all our students are getting a good meal at no cost to families.”

So what do districts and their students stand to gain from this program, besides the obvious free meals? Gowanda School Lunch Manager Amy Lineberger is pleased that it eliminates the stigma associated with free or reduced lunches.

In their summer newsletter, Cassadaga Valley Central School pointed out the benefit of paperwork elimination, as families normally have to complete a household application for free or reduced lunches.

The CEP cites multiple benefits for school districts including reduced paperwork and administrative costs, no need to track unpaid meal charges and a streamlined meal service program. Students may possibly benefit from more time spent eating their lunch and less time spent in line, locating their meal card or correct change.

Delcamp pointed out that while the CEP does reduce some paperwork, the district encourages families to fill out the free/reduced lunch application, as this data qualifies the school for certain title funds. “By filling out the paperwork, the district is eligible for waivers for PSAT and ACT testing fees, which is a big help to families,” Delcamp explained.

While it remains to be seen how many more schools across the state will take advantage of the CEP, one thing is for certain: more and more districts in the county are taking part in the program, and even more are nearing eligibility. Is the financial outlook for the area increasingly grim, as Delcamp suggests? It would seem so, according to recent data. For an increasing number of public school students, it seems there really is such a thing as a free lunch.