Free student meals will be offered at most schools on trial basis
A new pilot program this fall will offer free breakfasts and lunches to students at most Morgan County Schools, regardless of income. Students in all schools except Berkeley Springs High School will receive free meals.
If at least 40% of a school’s students are directly certified for free meals, then the entire school qualifies for free meals through the West Virginia Department of Education Community Eligibility Option initiative. The high school doesn’t meet the needed 40% requirement.
Families receive direct certification for the free meals from the State Department of Health and Human Resources when they qualify for food stamps or temporary cash assistance.
Approved for one year
The Morgan County School Board approved the Universal Free Meal project at their June 19 meeting on a trial basis for the 2012-2013 school year. The project, which is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, provides free meals to children in high poverty areas.
School Treasurer Nancy White said that Warm Springs Intermediate School and Warm Springs Middle School were below the 40% direct certification requirement, but when she grouped them with other schools they fell above the criteria.
She tried every combination of schools to include the high school, but said their percentage of direct certified students is too low. White also presented the school board with the figures for including the high school in the free meal program, but the costs were too high.
White said they were trying to give struggling families a chance for their kids to have a nutritious meal at no cost.
“If they’re hungry, they’re not learning,” she said.
White emphasized that the success of the free meal program depended on more children eating breakfast and lunch at school. The school system will receive reimbursement for the free meals based on the number of eligible children. It was critical that participation in the meal program increase, she said.
The difference in last year’s total receipts for the school meal program and the projected revenue for this year with the free meals was -$104,750.36. A 20% increase in participation would make up that difference by bringing in an estimated $117,824.25. They would also save around $15,000 in student billings for meal debts.
Participation had dropped, especially at Pleasant View Elementary, Child Nutrition Director Kristie Randall said. Families can’t afford the meals. At some schools, participation may go up if meals are free.
Randall said they did the breakfast challenge at some schools and offered the Grab and Go breakfast option at the middle school. There was some increase in the numbers of kids that ate breakfast.
They were trying to arrange a later breakfast for Paw Paw Schools students. Having carts with Grab and Go breakfasts available in other Berkeley Springs High School buildings was discussed.
Board member David Ambrose asked if meal participation would be increased by having meals kids like. Randall said if they offered pizza and chicken nuggets every day, they’d have tons of kids eating meals, but they had strict nutritional guidelines.
Former school board member Larry Omps raised concerns about what would happen if they had to go back to asking parents to pay for their children’s meals at those schools after offering them free meals.
Unpaid meal debts
White said around $100,000 deemed collectible was currently owed to the school system for students’ meals. An additional $40,000 in unpaid student meal debts, which included children that had left the school system, was considered uncollectible.
White said they would encourage parents to continue filling out the free and reduced meal applications despite the new free meals. That information was needed for E-Rate and Title I funding. Berkeley Springs High School will still need to collect the applications for their meal program.
School Superintendent David Banks said they thoroughly studied whether the program would meet the needs of children and fit within their budget constraints.
The idea that students could go to school and not have to worry about how they were going to pay for their breakfast and lunch was very powerful, Banks said. He wished they could offer it at all schools.
Banks felt that many students were malnourished and that it impacted their ability to learn. Proper nutrition and exercise feeds the brain, Banks said.