Floyd County Schools is expected to end its participation in a federal program which provides free meals to all students, after $500,000 was lost in supporting it last year, and a similar hit is expected if the program is continued for the duration of this school year.
If the Floyd County Board of Education votes to step away from the Community Eligibility Program at October’s meeting, a process would begin to make sure all students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch have applied to do so before paid meals start back up in January.
Nutrition Director Donna Carver told board members that ending CEP participation during the school year makes it easier to spread information of the change to parents. Under CEP the school system is not required to take in applications to offer free meals, providing free breakfast and lunch to all students. But the school system receives reimbursements depending on the percentage of students who are eligible for free meals, determined by their participations in programs such as SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
When the CEP program took effect in 2016, Carver said an initial loss of $53,000 was expected. However, with a $1 million fund balance, this did not appear to be a big issue. And a USDA feasibility tool actually showed participation in the program was making the school system money as it went into its second year, the 2017-2018 school year.
But as last school year went on, the actual impact of the CEP program on the nutrition department’s finances began to be seen, with a total loss of $500,000, halving the fund balance.
“The (feasibility) tool was not written for a school system like ours,” Carver said.
The 2019 budget approved by the board earlier this year includes $300,000 to get the nutrition department fund balance out of the red.
“The CEP program does not appear to be self-sustaining long term with as much overhead as we have,” the presentation to the board stated.
Superintendent Jeff Wilson said the move is necessary to keep the nutrition department in the black.
The CEP program requires a school system to have 40 percent of all students eligible for free meals without an application, meaning kids of homeless families, Carver explained.
In spring 2016, 42.69 percent of students qualified for free lunch without an application, according to information presented by Carver. In combining the students eligible without an application with those applying for free and reduced lunch, the percentage of students was over 60 percent at that time, Carver said.
However, by last spring, system officials were only able to find 36 percent of students eligible for free lunch without submitting an application — Carver said it has become harder to track eligible students since the software for doing so is no longer available.
Carver said that by going back to taking applications the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch could again be at or above 60 percent. If this turns out to be the case, then free breakfast could be provided again next year, she continued. Also, free after-school snacks could continue if at least half of the schools in each of the four attendance districts are eligible for free or reduced lunches to be served.
A massive effort to get print applications and or access to electronic applications to parents would get underway in October. Also a campaign to share the news of the change back to paid meals would kickoff. This effort, including completing the application process and notifying parents of eligibility, would continue into November and December.