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Free meal program going well at WNC schools

schoolsHalf a year after launching a program that makes breakfast and lunch free for every child in school, the financials are looking good for Jackson County Schools’ child nutrition program.

“Because she’s been able to bring participation up, she’s been doing better than she has in years,” Finance Director Gwen Edwards said of Child Nutrition Director Laura Cabe. 

“Behavior has improved, test scores have improved, nurse visits have decreased,” Cabe said at a January school board meeting. 

The new way of doing things — implemented at Smokey Mountain Elementary School, Blue Ridge School, Blue Ridge Early College and the School of Alternatives — is part of the federal Community Eligibility Provision, a program that aims to increase kids’ access to healthy food in high-poverty areas. At schools using the program, breakfast and lunch are free for all students, regardless of their family’s income. 

Schools qualify to enroll if 40 percent or more of the student population directly qualifies for free or reduced lunch, a category that includes kids who are homeless, migrants, in foster care or from households enrolled in SNAP (formerly called foods stamps), among other situations. 

Enrolling carries a risk, though. A formula based on the percentage of students who directly qualify for free and reduced lunch determines what percentage of meals are reimbursed at the free rate. The rest are reimbursed at the paid rate, which is a whole lot less. Success depends on boosting participation in school meals. 

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In Jackson County, that’s an effort that’s been going quite well. In the participating schools, average breakfast participation before the program began was 33 percent, and lunch was 60 percent. Now, both breakfast and lunch have 85 percent participation rates.

As a result, federal reimbursements have increased by about $56,000 over the amount at this point in the last school year, and by $93,000 over this point in 2014. By contrast, food supply costs have risen only $10,000 between 2015 and 2016 and $64,000 between 2014 and 2016. That’s an overall increase of $32,000 in two years.  

“The net effect is an increase in net income,” Edwards said. 

Jackson isn’t the only county evaluating the effects of a newly implemented CEP program. 

Participation has increased drastically in Swain County, too, with the proportion of breakfast eaters at Swain West Elementary School shooting up from 30 to 50 percent and the percentage of lunch eaters increasing from 70 to 85 percent, nutrition director Jennifer Brown said. 

Food costs have definitely risen, she said, especially because at breakfast the schools are now required to make the students take the entire meal being offered rather than just what they want to eat — that requirement “creates a little waste,” she said. But overall, it’s going well. 

“We’re basically breaking even with it, which is all we can hope to do,” Brown said. 

Macon County is also seeing a lot more students partaking of breakfast and lunch after instituting CEP at East Franklin Elementary School and Union High School. While numbers at Union High have held fairly steady — they were already pretty high, and some students there take their meals at Franklin High School — breakfast participation at East Franklin has increased from 24 to 58 percent and lunch participation has gone from 78 to 89 percent. 

Revenue from the two schools is about $10,000 more than it was at this point last year, said nutrition director Kim Terrell, but grappling with increased food costs has been a struggle. Over the past year, food costs have risen 20 percent. But even with that challenge, Macon’s CEP schools are currently breaking even compared to last year. 

“Despite the financial difficulties, we feel CEP has been a positive move not only for our SN (School Nutrition) program but more importantly, for our students,” Terrell said. “It has been a win-win for both.”

The district is actually considering expanding the program to more schools, she said, though no decision has yet been made. 

The results coming in from the three school districts are likely no surprise to Haywood’s nutrition director Allison Francis. Haywood implemented the program in the 2014-15 school year, as soon as it was available, and saw its participation increase immediately, leading to glowing reviews from Francis. 

“What we are most excited about is we are feeding more students, which is our goal,” Cabe said.



Share the munch

Along with involvement in the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program making meals free for all students at participating schools, comes some new rules. One of those rules is a requirement that cafeteria workers give students a serving of everything on the breakfast menu, rather than just handing out what the students say they’ll eat. At lunch, children must take at least three of the items on the menu, but that’s a requirement true across the board, not just at schools involved in the free meal program. 

The rule is aimed at encouraging kids to eat a more balanced diet, but it results in a good bit of food waste. Jackson County Schools is working to make lemonade out of lemons by creating “share tables” at all schools in the district. Behind the lunch line, a cooler and bin are set up for students to deposit any packaged foods they don’t want to eat. 

“Any student can come up and eat extras,” said Laura Cabe, child nutrition director for Jackson schools. 

At the end of the week, The Community Table comes by to pick up what’s left to distribute from its food pantry. Those little donations add up to a lot, with about $2,600 worth of food contributed between August and December 2015.

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