Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

August 17, 2013

Free meals — Welcomed help for Mercer kids

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— The decision by the Mercer County Board of Education to continue a free school breakfast and lunch program for students is welcomed. The school system has opted to continue its participation in the Community Eligibility Option, a program that makes free meals available to all students who choose to participate.

Under the old free-and-reduced school meals process, families had to fill out forms and produce documentation showing they participated in Food Stamps or other assistance programs, according to Kellan Sarles, a public information specialist for the school system. Families do not have to submit applications for the free meals in the new program.

“There’s no application at all,” Sarles said. “It’s based on what they call direct certification, which means a certain percentage of families receive federal assistance in the form of Food Stamps or other programs. If the county’s direct certification rate is 40 percent or higher, then all of our students are eligible in this program.”

The program is available in all Mercer County schools. Any student who wishes to eat breakfast and lunch is entitled to a free meal as part of the program.

The free meals program is already making a difference in the school system.

During the 2012-2013 school year, participation in breakfast meals jumped from 28 percent to 60 percent, which was the biggest increase among all of the state’s 55 counties. Locally, 17 elementary schools and one high school instituted “grab and go” or “breakfast in the classroom” options to make breakfast more accessible to all students, Sarles said. And the remaining schools are exploring alternative ways to deliver food services.

Mercer County expects to feed more than 9,000 students each day in its 26 schools this fall. The highest participation in the program has been seen in the schools serving breakfast in a variety of creative ways after the school day has begun, according to Sarles.

Throughout the state, 38 of 52 eligible county school systems have decided to participate in the Community Eligibility Option. Approximately 332 schools will participate across the nation reaching nearly 110,000 public school students this school year.

The Community Eligibility Option was enacted as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and provides universal meal service to children in high poverty areas. It serves as an alternative to collecting, approving, and verifying household eligibility applications for free and reduced price eligible students.

  In West Virginia, nearly 14 percent of residents live in “food insecure households” and more than 88,500 children live below the poverty line. And the problem is greater in rural areas such as southern West Virginia.

That’s why the program is so important. No child should go to school hungry, or stay in school hungry.