Danville hopes to make school meals free for all students

Danville hopes to make school meals free for all students

DANVILLE — Greg Lazzell often likes to point out that Danville students receive one of the cheapest square meals in town.

He hopes to make it even cheaper for more students in the 2015-16 school year. As in free for everyone.

"It's looking pretty promising for next year," said Lazzell, the district's food service director, who is hoping to do that through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Community Eligibility Provision. "It's going to eliminate the administrative burden on school districts and needy families.

"And it's going to provide greater access to breakfast and lunch." Lazzell said, adding that for some students, these meals may be the only nutritious ones they get during the week.

The Community Eligibility Provision, made possible under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, gives schools that serve predominantly low-income children a new option for meal certification.

Under the provision, schools aren't required to collect or process applications for free and reduced-priced meals served through the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Instead, they serve all meals at no cost and are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students identified for free meals, using information from other programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families and now Medicaid.

"The way our numbers shake out we would be reimbursed at the 100-percent level," Lazzell said.

Last year, 78 percent of the 6,000-plus student body was eligible to receive free and reduced meals. This year, Lazzell expects that number to be a little higher since Medicaid has been included in the direct certification.

What's the savings to those who don't qualify? Lazzell said elementary students currently fork over $1.95 per meal, while middle- and high school students pay $2.05.

"It also eliminates the stigma that may still be attached to students who eat for free," Lazzell said. "It becomes more universally acceptable. To me, it's a win-win."

According to the USDA, about 4,000 schools in 11 states participate in the program.

"They're seeing a significant increase in meal participation," Lazzell said. "The biggest increase was breakfast. That increased by 23 percent, and that's been a real focus for us — to make sure we're making that meal more widely available to our students."

Superintendent Mark Denman said officials are still investigating whether participating in the program would affect the district's federal Title I funding. The amount is based on schools' free and reduced meal numbers.

Denman said the district's share is usually between $2 million and $3 million a year.

"People at the state and federal levels have assured us it shouldn't be a problem. But we want to look at all of the pros and cons," Denman said, adding the school board would have to sign off on the district's participation.

Aside from that concern, Denman said he thinks the alternative approach will benefit local families by eliminating application paperwork for those that are eligible, and the cost of regular meals for those that aren't.

Denman added the district will be able to save money and time by eliminating application paperwork and electronic tracking of student meals.

"That's time that could be spent on instructional issues," he said.

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