Free lunch not feasible

Published 12:50 pm Wednesday, August 28, 2019

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Robbie Mason

This past spring the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released its list of school divisions eligible for participation in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the school lunch program for the 2019-20 school year.

This provision allows eligible schools and school divisions to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students. Eligibility is based upon the percentage of students eligible for free lunch through direct certification.

“Direct certification is a process by which students are found eligible for free meals by using data provided by the Department of Social Services for certain benefit programs,” said Charlotte County Public Schools (CCPS) Interim Superintendent, Robbie Mason. “These students are directly certified, meaning that they do not have to submit a free lunch application. Once a school or division reaches 40 percent or more of its students being directly certified, then the division become eligible to offer the CEP.” According to Mason completed student meal applications do not affect this percentage, only direct certifications.

“CCPS was found eligible to participate in the CEP for this school year; however, there are reasons why this program is not feasible, at this point,” explained Mason.

The higher a school division’s direct certification rate (ISP), the higher its reimbursement rate will be. School divisions near 40 percent direct certification receive smaller percentages of free meal reimbursements than school divisions with direct certification percentages in the fifties or sixties. For school divisions with higher ISP percentages, full  reimbursements make this a true “free lunch program” because the school division will be reimbursed for the cost of all meals. Statistics from the Virginia Department of Education indicate that CCPS currently has an ISP of 41.76 percent, which means that the school system would receive a lower percentage of free meal reimbursement rates than many participating divisions.

“CCPS would be responsible for paying the difference between the reimbursement rate and the actual meal costs,” said Mason. “The concern is that CEP implementation could be a very expensive budgetary item, and one for which the actual cost is impossible to predict due to participation rates and other variables.”

Mason went on to point out that VDOE released Superintendent’s Memo #070-19 which stated, “Those with an ISP less than 55 percent should evaluate the financial impact of implementing CEP to determine if it is financially feasible.”

According to Mason if CCPS implemented this program and suffered losses based upon its low ISP percentage, it would be forced to pay the difference from the school division budget, which is very limited, and has already been allocated to schools and programs.

“While CCPS was eligible for the CEP this school year, there are variables affecting the exact cost of the program. The school division does not have enough funds to make up the potential difference between meal reimbursements and actual costs without affecting the quality of education it provides” Mason explained. “It would be wonderful if all students in Charlotte County could receive free meals at school, but it is important to have a full understanding of the associated costs and the impact that these costs could have on school operations and students. Mason did say that the school system is committed to studying the option for next school year when 2020-2021 guidelines are released.