published Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Cleveland City Schools to offer free lunches for all next year

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Under a pilot program, Cleveland City Schools will offer free breakfast and lunch to all its 5,200 students next year.

The city school board recently voted 7-0 to adopt the Community Eligibility Provision -- a federal program available to school systems in which at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals -- as a one-year pilot.

"I think the one year, in my opinion, is worth the gamble on our students eating free next year -- every student in the system," said Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of Cleveland City Schools.

Months of analysis went into the proposal, Ringstaff said, citing concerns about whether the combination of revenue from federal reimbursements and actual cafeteria sales of a la carte items could sustain the program.

Susan Mobley, supervisor of school nutrition services, said any meal costs not covered by federal funds must be covered by other means. Reimbursement rates are based on the percentage of students who fall within Direct Certification criteria, which includes state benefits lists as well as those that are migrants, homeless, in foster care or certain income-eligible Head Start students, she said.

However, students participating in free or reduced-cost meals from income applications are not included in the certification criteria, according to Community Eligibility Provision guidelines.

The reimbursement rates will not go down, but they may go up, Mobley said.

Of the school system's 5,200 students, about 65 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost meals, according to schools officials.

"We've spent an entire semester crunching numbers, and we feel like we're going to be OK," Mobley said.

The program requires that students select a reimbursable meal, and they cannot take just one item and return to the line for additional free items, according to a summary provided by the school system's nutritional services department.

"What strings are attached?" school board member Richard Shaw said.

Mobley said there are no new regulations attached to the program, but all meals must adhere to United States Department of Agriculture regulations.

She said one of the greatest benefits of the program is that it will remove the stigma that students might feel by taking advantage of free and reduced-cost meals, especially as they get older.

While there are no statistics on how many eligible high school students refuse free meals, the number of students participating in free and reduced-cost meal programs drops as students get older, she said.

"I've got to be honest, I sometimes daydream what this is going to mean for our kids," Mobley said. "It's hard for me to imagine what it's going to be like for a cashier not to turn a kid away."

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Contact him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.

Meanwhile, in Hamilton County:

Lunch prices

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