Questions remain about free school meals program

jmink@macon.comJuly 7, 2014 

The deadline for a program that would give free school meals to all public school students has been extended, but some school districts, including Bibb County, still have concerns.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision would allow schools in impoverished areas to offer free meals to all students, without requiring parents to complete applications. The program will begin nationwide during the upcoming academic year. The application deadline was pushed from June 30 to Aug. 1.

The program is for schools where at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free meals based on federal criteria, according to the USDA.

Still, the program could hurt other school funding, local officials say. For that reason, Bibb County school leaders are hesitant to take part in the program -- for now.

It’s far from an easy adjustment. The program would change the process for determining meal reimbursements and the number of low-income students in a school. Therefore, federal funding -- such as Title I and E-Rate, which is doled out based on those numbers -- could be affected.

In Bibb County, a big concern is the potential impact on federal E-Rate funding, which provides discounts to help schools obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access. During the past three years, Bibb County has received about $5.4 million in E-Rate funds, which has been “critical” to technology and other school needs, interim Superintendent Steve Smith said.

“On one hand, (the meals program) looks attractive,” he said. “But if it takes millions of dollars out of E-Rate funding, it might not be such a wise decision.”

Also, federal officials are in the process of changing guidelines for E-Rate funding by Oct. 1. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine how the free meals program would affect the amount of money the school district receives.

It’s not a risk that local officials will be quick to take.

“Our technology program would go bust if we didn’t have E-Rate or SPLOST money,” Smith said.

Still, there is hope that the free meals program will be offered in Bibb County one day.

The free meals option would benefit the district’s nutrition program, but, at the same time, school officials must look at the entire picture, school nutrition Director Cleta Long said.

This spring, Long presented information about the meals program to the school board. The program could help parents who do not qualify for free or reduced-priced meals but still must worry about the cost of school food. About 82 percent of Bibb students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, Long said.

But, it’s understandable that officials must consider the impact on other programs, including E-Rate funding, she said.

“I applaud (school leaders) for making sure and looking at every avenue,” Long said.

For now, school officials must continually increase the price of school meals to comply with federal guidelines.

The Bibb school board voted in June to slightly increase the price of meals, to make sure the amount the district receives for paid lunches is comparable to the reimbursements received for free and reduced-priced lunches. That increase is required as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

This coming academic year, school lunches will increase by 10 cents for elementary school students, 25 cents for middle and high school students and $1.15 for adults.

Still, the free meals program is an option for Bibb schools down the road, and it’s already in place in some regional schools.

Georgia piloted the program last academic year, and some districts, including Houston County, took part. Ten Houston County schools qualified for the program last academic year. Some districts did not qualify for the pilot program, and others, such as Bibb County, had too many questions about the impact on funding.

As the program is offered nationwide this academic year, some questions still remain, but there is hope that those questions will be answered in time.

“I’m hoping that one day, (free meals for all students) will become the norm,” Long said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 744-4331.

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