Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


July 18, 2012

School meals

Pilot initiative welcomed in Mercer

— — Goods news for youngsters in Mercer County Schools. Students will pay nothing for school meals beginning this August as part of a new national pilot program adopted by the Mercer County Board of Education.

Board members agreed to allow the county to participate in a national pilot program called Community Eligibility Option, or CEO, a universal meal service plan for high poverty areas made possible by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

West Virginia was selected as one of four states in the nation eligible to try the program, an alternative to the traditional process of collecting and approving applications for free and reduced price eligibility based upon household income, according to Kellen Sarles, a media information specialist for the local school system.

The CEO eligibility depends upon the percentage of students who qualify under the rules of “direct certification,” or those from families participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs.

Although the rate varies from school to school, the average rate of direct certification for Mercer County is 45.9 percent, which is well above the 40 percent threshold for CEO eligibility. The pilot program will run for four years in the local schools.

Mercer County Superintendent Deborah Akers says the change will result in additional costs for the county but she expects those costs will be offset over time by increased participation in the meal program.  “Some of the schools will need to adjust their lunch schedules to accommodate more students,” Akers said, “and there are changes we can make in the breakfast routine that will encourage students to start their day with something in their stomachs.”

Akers correctly notes that those students who enjoy a healthy breakfast and lunch are more likely to learn, and are less likely to be distracted or inattentive in the classroom.

“I suspect that, with the old system, some students may have been self-conscious about eating, worried that others would know that they received free or reduced-price meals,” Akers added. “Beginning in August, all students will receive lunch at no charge — with the exception of extra milk or a second meal.”

The pilot program will translate into real savings for families, particularly those with multiple children in school. Parents and guardians will not be required to complete a paper or online application for free and reduced meal rates under the new initiative.

Mercer County currently contributes approximately $2.8 million annually, after federal reimbursement, to the Child Nutrition Program. The county’s contribution will increase by approximately $330,000 by participating in the CEO.  However, under the rules of community eligibility, the county will receive a federal reimbursement at a rate of 1.6 percent times the percentage of direct certify students. Based on a 45.9 percent rate of direct certification, the federal government will reimburse the county for 73.4 percent of all meals at the free rate and the remaining 26.6 percent of meals at the paid rate.

The pilot program is good news for youngsters and parents across Mercer County. No child should be expected to go to school hungry, or without proper nutrition. And now all children in Mercer County will be afforded a healthy school breakfast and lunch free of charge. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

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