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County eyes free food program for schools

Children in grades K-8 in Carter County may soon be able to eat their meals at school for free, thanks to a federal program the school system is considering.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service recently announced the nationwide availability of a key provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, aimed at reducing child hunger: the Community Eligibility Provision.
Beginning July 1, participating school districts in Tennessee will be able to provide free school meals to students in high poverty areas.
“The Community Eligibility Provision provides more eligible children with access to the healthy school meals offered through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, while streamlining paperwork for parents and schools,” said FNS Administrator Audrey Rowe in a released statement about the program. “We’ve seen this approach succeed in reaching at-risk children in 10 other states and the District of Columbia, and now schools in low-income areas across the country will have a new opportunity to feed their students breakfast and lunch at no charge to families.”
A school qualifies if at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free meals automatically because they participate in another means-tested assistance program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. School systems can choose to implement the program system-wide, for a group of schools or for an individual school, based on the needs of the system and the number of eligible students.
At a Board of Education workshop on Tuesday, members of the Board heard from Director of Food Services Marisa Potter about the program and how it could benefit the system.
Potter said that in studying the number of eligible students across the system it was discovered that while the elementary schools contained the number of required students, the high schools did not. She said if the county wanted to participate in the program it would need to be implemented for the K-8 grades only, where the eligibility numbers were approximately 50 percent.
According to Potter, the program has the potential to make money for the county based on the number of children participating, but the county is not at the right numbers yet to see that level of success with the program. She said based on the numbers for the 2013-2014 school year, the program would have lost $44,000 for the county.
In order to avoid losing money with the program, Potter said the county would need to see more eligible children identified, which she said will be easier because the eligibility is broader under CEP than under the Free and Reduced program currently in use.
“We will be going up,” she said. “I am going to be finding these kids.”
Also, she said, the schools will need to see more children eating meals at the schools. To work on that aspect, Potter said she has worked on redesigning the menus and hopes to work with the schools to make more time available to the students to eat breakfast.
When redesigning the menus, Potter said she went straight to the source — the children — and did surveys. “It was the cutest thing,” she said. “One little girl wrote ‘Fish does not go with milk.’”
Potter said she took the children’s ideas into consideration and is bringing back popular items while still maintaining the nutritious nature of the meals.
She said the food service program and the schools need to work together to make sure the children are getting the food they need and that the program is successful.
“My people have already jumped on it,” she said. “They said if you say ‘yes’ to this, they will give 110 percent.”
Director of Schools Kevin Ward spoke favorably about the federal program and told the board he supported its implementation in the school system.
“I am going to stick my neck out because this is a gamble but the gamble involves feeding children and helping families,” Ward said during Tuesday’s workshop. “I believe we can get our principals on board. I don’t see that it’s that big of a gamble.
“We can make this happen. We can make some money or at least break even, I am confident of that. If it is feeding kids for free, it is well worth it.”