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More WNC students to receive free school meals

Because of the Community Eligibility Provision, all students in several schools will be able to receive free meals. Because of the Community Eligibility Provision, all students in several schools will be able to receive free meals.

More students in Macon, Jackson and Haywood counties will receive free breakfast and lunch in the coming school year thanks to the Community Eligibility Provision and work by local school nutrition departments.

“I ran the data for this upcoming school year; all schools but Franklin High School and Highlands qualify for the 2023-24 school year,” said Macon County Child Nutrition Director David Lightner.

Previously, the only two schools eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision in Macon County were East Franklin and Union Academy. Students at those schools could eat lunch and breakfast for free without the need to fill out a free and reduced application. Now, all schools in Macon County will have free breakfast in lunch, besides FHS and Highlands.

“I think this is one of the most positive things I have heard for our families and school children in a long time,” said Macon School Board Member Hillary Wilkes. “Obviously we wish it was for all the schools, but it’s excellent news.” 

The Community Eligibility Provision is a non-pricing meal service option for schools with low-income populations. CEP allows schools to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting the household applications that otherwise permit individual families to receive free or reduced-price school meals. Instead, schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students eligible for free meals because they are foster, migrant, homeless or runaway, or based on their participation in other programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Medicaid.

In order to get the reimbursement amount needed from the United States Department of Agriculture, the department that administers the CEP, Macon County Schools will need to see about a 5% increase in meal participation.

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“If we don’t increase participation, we could come up a little less than $88,000 short in reimbursement,” said Lightner. “So the key to this is having increased participation county wide at breakfast and lunch. Five percent, we feel like it’s something that’s doable.” 

While Lightner is confident the schools can get to a 5% increase in participation, members of the school board that approved the CEP during their June 26 board meeting decided that having widely available free meals for students was worth the possible cost incursion on reimbursement.

“It’s always been a concern, of all the boards I’ve served on, the children who this is their only source of nutrition,” said Macon Board of Education Chairman Jim Breedlove. “So being able to get it better, if we can afford it, is invaluable. Even if we don’t meet the 5%, this is a step that we need to take because it’s what is best for our students.”

“At the beginning of the pandemic, participation was very high, especially when we were delivering meals,” said Lightner. “Now we’ve fallen back to pre-pandemic rates, like right at it, but I believe a lot more students would be encouraged to eat with free meals.” 

School Board member Hillary Wilkes noted that the fall in participation could have been due to the increase in meal costs. Prior to the 2022-23 school year, many school systems were setting meal prices for the first time since the COVID pandemic began. During those years, school nutrition programs throughout Western North Carolina pivoted to create grab-and-go meals for students when schools went remote. When classes came back in session, schools were able to provide breakfast and lunch to all students free of charge thanks to waivers from the USDA which reimbursed schools for every meal served. The program was extended through the end of the 2021-22 school year but expired after that year.

When school nutrition departments went to set prices before the 2022-23 school year, they were not only dealing with the end of the waiver program, but also with rising inflation. Many school systems, including Macon County, had to increase meal prices by more than a dollar .

“I would be shocked if we didn’t exceed 5%. I know so many people who have scaled back eating at school because it went up over a dollar. I mean it was a whole dollar a day and then you add in multiple children,” said Wilkes. “I don’t have a personal problem with the 5%. I don’t think we’re gonna end up in the hole.” 

Administration is still stressing the importance of families filling out the free and reduced lunch application. These forms not only allow for more accurate tracking that helps qualify for the Community Eligibility provision, they also help individual families with opportunities beyond nutrition. Anybody that qualifies for free and reduced meals can in certain cases get reduced fees for certain extracurricular activities, testing and fee reductions for different programs.

“We have submitted a free and reduced application to the state which will continue to be available in paper form and online,” said Lightner.

Macon County Schools will maintain the same prices for lunch as the 2022-23 school year, as well as universal free breakfast for students at all schools, including FHS and Highlands.

Similar changes have been made in Haywood and Jackson county schools. In Haywood, while seven schools used to qualify for CEP, next year, all schools will.

In Jackson County, School Nutrition Director Laura Cabe presented several options to school board members for the number of schools that could participate in the CEP. Administration looked at the possibility of including all schools in the CEP; however, even with 10% increased participation in school meals, the school system would incur more costs than reimbursements by over $100,000.

The board ultimately decided to start the program this year with five schools — Blue Ridge School, Blue Ridge Early College, Cullowhee Valley, Smoky Mountain Elementary and Jackson Community School.

If there is no change in participation in the coming school year, the school system would be in the hole about $50,000. However, if participation increases the school system could be ahead by about $30,000. The school system will have the opportunity to add more schools to the program with each coming year, but the five schools selected for the 2023-24 school year are locked into the program for the next four school years.

“The schools that won’t be selected to participate in CEP, they will still have complete opportunities to fill out a meal application, to qualify based on household size and income,” said Laura Cabe. “I will also do a download for the Department of Health and Human Services to qualify students to be directly certified. So that does not leave out anybody. We will always do all that we can to qualify as many students as we can.”

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