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Hall, Gainesville opt out of school meal plan

Georgia joins federal pilot program this year

POSTED: July 18, 2013 11:53 p.m.

The Hall County and Gainesville school systems have opted out of a federal meal program intended to provide easier access to free or reduced-price meals for K-12 students.

The Community Eligibility Option is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010. It will go nationwide in the 2014-15 school year, with Georgia joining the pilot program this upcoming year.

The program is intended to streamline the process for those applying for free or reduced-price meals by removing that application process for many, if not all, students.

Both Hall and Gainesville schools already have options for students needing free or reduced-price meals. Hall follows the usual application procedures under federal guidelines, while Gainesville has had free meals available to all students for a couple of years.

“We were approved for Provision 2 status in school year 2011-12,” said Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer. She said that, at the time of approval, the school’s free and reduced-price lunch rate was 78 percent. Under Provision 2 status, students eat all meals at no cost to them.

The provision lasts for four years, with the Gainesville system now entering its third year of the program.

Provision 2 is similar to the CEO program, but while the provision requires schools to establish a baseline of students during the first year of participation, the CEO program does not require that baseline, instead relying on the list of students who fall under direct certified eligibility.

Andrea Thomas, director of school nutrition with Hall County, said the system decided the CEO program did not make financial sense for the schools.

“There was a work sheet that was provided to us by the state ... that tool determines if it will be feasible for us to do (the CEO program),” Thomas said. “It was a different reimbursement rate.”

CEO-eligible schools must have at least 40 percent direct certified students. Systemwide, Hall County has 32 percent eligible, while some individual schools meet or exceed that 40 percent requirement.

A list of students who meet direct certified standards are distributed to school systems via the state, according to Gainesville Director of School Nutrition Penny Fowler. Those students may be from families on public assistance, are migrant or are homeless. It’s a different number than students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, which is determined by household size and income compared to the federal poverty level.

Information from the Georgia Department of Education shows 61.4 percent of students in the Hall County school system were eligible for free and reduced meals as of Oct. 31, 2012.

“The calculations showed a reduction in revenue compared to the 2013 federal meal reimbursement rate, that we felt could not be offset by higher participation,” Thomas said.

Schools get reimbursed for free and reduced meals. They also receive limited reimbursement for full-price meals. The reimbursement rate is determined annually.

Reimbursement rates for schools with 60 percent or more students eligible for free and reduced-price meals this previous school year were $2.94 per free meal, $2.54 for reduced price meals, and 35 cents for fully paid meals. There is also limited reimbursement available for breakfasts, milk and after-school snacks. That rate adds an additional 6 cents for schools in compliance with new meal patterns set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The information comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Georgia, Clayton County Schools and Atlanta Public Schools have publicly announced their participation in the CEO program this pilot year.

While the local school systems won’t be involved this year, the program is still a possibility for the future. Thomas said it would be something the Hall school system will revisit next year. Gainesville’s Fowler said she is meeting with a state official in October to see if it may be a better option than the current provision.

Since Gainesville’s participation under Provision 2 began, Dyer said that the number of students eating meals has risen “significantly.”

“That tells us that many high school children were not eating because they were embarrassed by free-reduced status,” she said. “Now, there is no difference between any student.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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