Students at nine Grand Island Public Schools will receive free breakfast and lunch thanks to a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dodge, Howard, Jefferson, Knickrehm, Lincoln, Starr, Wasmer and West Lawn elementaries, as well as the Early Learning Center, were all classified as Community Eligibility Provision schools by the USDA beginning this school year.
According to information on the USDA website, CEP is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas. It allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.
In order to be designated as a CEP school, Kris Spellman, GIPS director of nutrition services, said the district submitted its free or reduced lunch numbers from last school year. She said the nine CEP schools will maintain their designation for four years, even if their free or reduced lunch percentages decrease.
Spellman added that there is an opportunity to add more CEP schools if more students qualify for free or reduced lunch based on USDA guidelines.
School districts, including GIPS, are reimbursed for the meals they provide to students at the CEP schools. According to the USDA, schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
“At the schools that have high rates of kids who are participating in the SNAP program, we call those directly certified because we do not rely on those families to fill out an application because DHHS informs us of those students,” Spellman said. “Those students are automatically qualified for free (meals). So the CEP program looks at the numbers of those families or children and gives us a percentage. Then, we use that to make a determination on if we can offer CEP to that school.”
John Hauser, principal at Starr Elementary, said it is “a wonderful opportunity” for the school’s families that every student receives a free breakfast and lunch.
“There is no concern over where that is coming from,” he said. “Every parent can plan on their students having that and all kids are treated the same.”
Angie Eberle, principal at Dodge Elementary, agreed with Hauser and said that school’s CEP school designation gives equitable opportunities for all students to have healthy and balanced meals.
“It helps us know that students have had a meal — breakfast and lunch,” she said. “It is important that they have that need met and they are able to focus on their academics and the requirements at school knowing they have had the nutrition that they need.”
Eberle and Hauser said their schools offered free breakfast to students prior to the CEP designation and that this has led to more students eating breakfast. They added this opportunity also has led to a greater focus by students in the classroom.
“We know how hard it can be to work on an empty stomach and you are unable to focus because your stomach hurts or you have that empty feeling in your stomach,” Hauser said. “We know that our kids are getting a nutritious meal and that that will help not only their health, but also help them focus on their academics. It is about getting those needs met. We know that students could have two meals at school to help with their nutrition.”
Spellman said the CEP designation reduces the stigma among students who may not want to be identified as qualifying for free or reduced meals.
“There is just that stigma where they do not want to feel like they are being identified as a ‘poor kid.’ So the CEP (designation) actually helps increase participation in the school meal program,” she said. “Since everybody is able to eat for free, it reduces that stigma like, ‘Oh, that kid is free (meal-qualified) and his parents cannot afford things.’ So decreasing that stigma increases equity for students to have nutritious food.”
Spellman said that if a parent has a child attending another middle school or high school, those schools do not automatically qualify for free meals and they still will need to fill out a free or reduced lunch application. She added that if a student brings their lunch from home and would like a milk, they still must pay for that at a cost of 50 cents per carton.
Eberle said the CEP designation has provided a relief to parents as they do not have to fill out the form for free or reduced meals. For those parents who do not qualify for free or reduced meals, she said they do not need to worry about whether their students have adequate funds in their account.
“It is just one less thing for parents to worry about in a time where we have enough to worry about,” Eberle said.