USDA Program Helps Schools Feed More Students for Free

The Community Eligibility Option helps district increase participation.

By Becky Schilling, Editor

USDA programs helps schools increase participation.

A major objective of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is increasing participation of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals in school meals programs. The law’s Community Eligibility Option (CEO) is one way the USDA hopes to accomplish this.

The CEO allows districts to stop collecting and processing applications for free or reduced-price meals. Instead districts serve breakfast and lunch at no cost for all students, and the foodservice department is reimbursed on the basis of a formula: The proportion of students considered directly certified multiplied by 1.6.

Students are considered directly certified if they qualify for SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. For example, if a district has a 45% direct certification rate, under CEO that district’s free rate of reimbursement would be .45 times 1.6, or .72. Therefore, 72% of all meals served are reimbursed at the free rate, and 28% of all meals served are reimbursable at the paid rate.

This is the first year for CEO, and three states—Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky—were selected to implement the program. Four states will be added for SY 2012-2013 and another four states in SY 2013-2014, before being opened the following year to all states.

Pike County Schools in Kentucky is one district implementing CEO this year. Pike County is the largest district in the state with 11,800 students. According to Sabrina Thompson, school foodservice director, the district’s direct certification rate is 41%.

“We are pretty proud to offer this option to our kids,” Thompson says.

Thompson decided to implement CEO because participation from students who qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches was low because of the perceived stigma of receiving a free meal. “Now nobody has to pay so they are on equal platform. You’ve eradicated the caste system for children in our district,” she says.

Another reason Thompson used CEO this year was because her breakfast participation was lagging, in large part because dining rooms were crowded, buses were late and students didn’t want to wait in line. To combat that, breakfast in the classroom was started in each of the district’s 24 schools. Since starting CEO and breakfast in the classroom, breakfast participation has increased from 30% to 80%.

Lunch participation has also increased. In addition, students are purchasing more a la carte items, which Thompson says allows students a safe way to test new items that they couldn’t afford to purchase before.

Thompson suggests that directors take a good look at their numbers before starting CEO. “Examine your participation very well,” she says. “If we could have had all of our free kids coming in and eating, we would have been fine. But that wasn’t the case. We found that our paid students were eating more and our free students were intimidated by that. We had such a very large percentage of free and reduced children. Some of our children, even in the reduced category, were charging food and many times we were eating that balance.”

Buffalo Public Schools: Bridget O’Brien Wood, foodservice director for 34,000-student Buffalo Public Schools in New York, is hoping her district can start a CEO program soon, after the district’s failed attempt to offer free lunch for all students 12 years ago.

The district has offered free breakfast for all under Provision 2 for 12 years. When the program started, the department also offered free lunch. The problem arose because the department still needed to collect and process meal applications to determine the rate of reimbursement from the USDA. O’Brien Wood says no one turned in applications when they started offering free meals, so the department lost a considerable amount of money in reimbursement.

“We told the families we were unable to continue [offering free lunch] and that they would have to fill out an application,” she says. “We did some marketing, prizes, sent mailers out and did competitions to see who could get the most applications in, but we lost about 10% of our eligibility.”

O’Brien Wood says the CEO option would allow the department to once again offer free meal to all, without crippling the department financially.

Philadelphia: Since 1991, the School District of Philadelphia has been running a USDA paperwork reduction pilot, another universal feeding program. Under the pilot, a socioeconomic study is conducted to determine the percentage the foodservice department can claim as free, reduced and paid meals.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act also calls for three demonstration districts to run a pilot that would be based off of a similar socioeconomic study. Wayne Grasela, senior vice president, hopes to be one of those three demonstration sites. “We maintain that that is the most statistically accurate way to establish eligibility,” he says.

Since the district implemented the universal feeding pilot, participation has increased, especially at the high school level, says Grasela. He notes that students are less likely as they age to take home and return an application for free meals.