Some Houston schools to offer free meals to every student

jmink@macon.comJuly 16, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- In 10 Houston County schools, all students will receive free meals beginning this school year.

It’s part of a federal program, which is new to Georgia and will be in place this academic year in a handful of other districts, officials say.

Georgia is one of 11 states implementing the pilot Community Eligibility Option for Meal Reimbursement program.

The program is for schools where at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free meals based on federal criteria. Students are deemed eligible if they live in a household that participates in federal food assistance, or if the students are foster, runaway, homeless or migrant children, according to a news release.

If enough students qualify, all children in that school -- regardless of their economic status -- will receive free breakfast, lunch and snacks.

In Houston County, those schools are Centerville Elementary, Lindsey Elementary, Linwood Elementary, Miller Elementary, Northside Elementary, Northside Middle, Parkwood Elementary, Pearl Stephens Elementary, Russell Elementary and Westside Elementary. Those schools will be evaluated each year to make sure they still qualify, according to a news release.

For now, a few school districts in Georgia are taking part in the program. In the midstate, Peach County schools will not be participating this school year, and Jones and Monroe counties do not qualify. Twiggs and Bibb counties are still reviewing the program requirements, nutrition officials said. The program will be open to the entire nation in the 2014-15 school year.

“We’re looking into it at this point,” said Cleta Long, nutrition director for Bibb County schools.

It is not a small adjustment to make. The program changes the process for determining meal reimbursements and the number of low-income students in a school, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture document.

The program also changes the way schools meet requirements for Title I funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Houston County, officials decided to take that step. While the program is new in Georgia, it has been piloted in other states for the past two years, said Meredith Potter, Houston nutrition director.

“We felt like this was a program we couldn’t afford not to do,” Potter said. “The benefit is going to be tremendous, and the burden it’s going to relieve off these families was something we couldn’t pass up.”

For parents whose children attend Community Eligibility Option schools, there is no fee or application for the new program. Those who do not attend one of those schools still can apply for free or reduced price lunch by filling out an application, Potter said.

The elimination of collecting and processing those applications at some schools is one way the new program benefits the school system, Potter said.

“We are predicting that the implementation of CEO will increase participation in the breakfast and lunch program,” she said in an e-mail. “Therefore, we are prepared to increase staffing and support to those schools if needed.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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