Area students benefit from free and reduced-cost meal program


As the new school year is about to begin, Jefferson County students are undoubtedly thinking about making new friends and learning exciting new subjects but many are also thinking about easing the hunger pains they have felt throughout the summer.

Thanks to the federal National School Lunch Act, public school students throughout the country who qualify are able to eat free or reduced-price meals at school under the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.

The program reimburses public school districts for expenses related to covering the cost of these free and reduced-price meals.

Each school district is allowed to set the price for the meals that are served within it.

Just before the beginning of each school year the United States Department of Agriculture releases the reimbursement rates it will pay to districts taking part in the program.

Eligibility criteria

The USDA income eligibility criteria for the 2013-2014 school year includes eligibility for free meals if a family of two earns $20,163 or less per year; and eligibility for reduced-price meals if the family of two earns $28,694 per year or less.

For a family of four if the income level is $30,615 per year or less the school-age children are eligible for free meals; and a family of four is eligible for reduced-price meals for its school-age children if the annual income level is $43,568 or less.

All school districts have application forms available for interested families.

Reimbursement rates

For the 2013-2014 school year the federal government will reimburse districts $2.53 for each reduced price lunch in districts with less than 60 percent participation; $2.55 for each reduced price lunch in districts with 60 percent or more participation; and a maximum reduced price lunch rate of $2.70.

The federal government will reimburse districts $2.93 for each free lunch in districts with less than 60 percent participation; $2.95 for each free lunch with 60 percent or more participation; and a maximum free lunch rate of $3.10.

The federal government will reimburse districts 28 cents for each paid lunch in districts with less than 60 percent participation; 30 cents for each paid lunch with 60 percent or more participation; and a maximum rate of 36 cents for each paid lunch.

For the 2013-2014 school year the federal government will reimburse $1.28 for each reduced-price breakfast in districts with non-severe need and $1.59 for each reduced price breakfast in districts with severe need.

The federal government will reimburse $1.58 for each free breakfast in districts with non-severe need and $1.89 in districts with severe need.

The federal government will reimburse 28 cents for each paid breakfast in all districts.

Students who qualify for reduced price meals pay 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

Dollarway School District

Dollarway Superintendent Bobby Acklin is pleased that all students in his district are able to eat for free.

“I have always believed that the breakfast and lunch program is so important that it should be part of the regular academic day and that there should be no charge for it,” Acklin said. “Here in the Dollarway district none of the kids have to pay and I am excited about that. The kids know that they will have breakfast and lunch at school every day and we want to make sure that they take advantage of that.”

Under the administration of former superintendent Frank Anthony, the Dollarway School District qualified under Provision 2 of the NSLA to provide free meals to all students.

“We pay the difference between the cost of serving meals at no charge to all students and the federal reimbursement,” Anthony said in 2012.

Tameka White. public affairs officer for the Dollarway District, said that Robert F. Morehead Middle School students will be participating in the federally funded Breakfast in the Classroom program starting this year.

A relatively new program known as Breakfast in the Classroom is intended to reach more students who qualify under the free and reduced-price meal program who are not eating the morning meal.

Pine Bluff School District

“We are introducing the Breakfast in the Classroom program into our district elementary and middle schools this year,” Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Linda Watson said. “It is critically important that the children get breakfast every morning. We don’t want our children hungry. If they’re hungry they can’t concentrate, just like we as adults can’t concentrate when we are hungry.”

Watson said that for many children in the district the food they receive at school is all they get during the entire day.

“These are often the only meals that our kids get,” Watson said. “It is so important for them to be able to eat here at school.”

Watson said that if the district is able to demonstrate an average of 90 percent or higher of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals it would allow for a much higher reimbursement amount from the federal government.

“We always get the application forms back from the elementary school children but it is at the junior high and high school level where we have problems,” Watson said. “So many of the older students just don’t bother to get the application forms filled out. But according to the federal guidelines all we can do is give them the form. It is against federal guidelines to push it.”

In the PBSD the full price for breakfast is $1.50 and the full lunch price is $2.25.

Figures provided by the Arkansas Department of Education show the number of students in each school who qualify for free and reduced price meals for the 2013-2014 school year.

At Southwood Elementary School 314 of 362 students (87 percent) qualify under the free and reduced program with 277 free and 37 reduced price;

• At W. T. Cheney Elementary 295 of 364 (81 percent) qualify with 255 free and 40 reduced price;

• At Southeast Middle School 332 of 389 (85 percent) qualify with 287 free and 45 reduced price;

• At Pine Bluff High School 698 of 947 (74 percent) qualify with 611 free and 87 reduced price;

• At Oak Park Elementary 373 of 389 (96 percent) qualify with 356 free and 17 reduced price;

• At Broadmoor Elementary 353 of 379 (93 percent) qualify with 316 free and 37 reduced price;

• At Belair Middle School 266 of 298 (89 percent) qualify with 238 free and 28 reduced price;

• At Jack Robey Junior High School 535 of 643 (83 percent) qualify with 473 free and 62 reduced price;

• At Thirty-Fourth Elementary 355 out of 387 or 92 percent qualify with 330 free and 25 reduced price.

Watson Chapel School District

Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Danny Hazelwood said his district made the decision several years ago to do what it could within the guidelines to maximize the return of completed free and reduced meal applications.

“For a long time we were teetering at just under 70 percent and we would qualify for a higher reimbursement amount if we could reach or surpass that number,” Hazelwood said. “A couple of years ago I decided that we needed to make a concerted effort to get those forms returned. I knew if we could just get the people to fill out the forms we would get more help and we did.”

Hazelwood said that at present approximately 74 percent of Watson Chapel district students qualify under the program.

“We only charge $1.50 for lunch and a dollar for breakfast because we don’t want to penalize kids just because they don’t qualify for free and reduced meals,” Hazelwood said. “We try to keep it as economical as we can.”

Hazelwood said the district is considering whether to take part in the Breakfast in the Classroom program.

ADE figures for the Watson Chapel district include:

•Edgewood Elementary School with 362 of 448 (81 percent) qualifying, including 320 free and 42 reduced price;

• L. L. Owen Elementary School with 297 of 383 (78 percent) qualifying, including 274 free and 23 reduced price;

• Coleman Elementary School with 534 of 656 (78 percent) qualifying, including 467 free and 47 reduced price;

• Watson Chapel High School with 482 of 736 (65 percent) qualifying, including 408 free and 74 reduced price;

• Watson Chapel Junior High School with 542 of 769 (70 percent) qualifying, including 481 free and 61 reduced price.

White Hall School District

White Hall School District Superintendent Larry Smith stressed the wide-ranging importance of NSLA funding.

“We received $500,000 in Title I funding last year that allowed us to hire seven math and literacy teachers to make sure that we get all of our students on grade level,” Smith said. “We received $620,000 in NSLA funding last year and will receive $644,000 this year which pays for our technology upgrades. This allows us to ensure that our students can compete with other students in Arkansas and across the world.”

Smith emphasized that many of the students in the White Hall district are beneficiaries of the free and reduced meals program.

“About 42 percent of our kids depend on that program for their meals,” Smith said. “They are the best meals that they get all day in some instances. A kid can’t learn well if they’re hungry and worried about being hungry.”

Smith said that while he recognizes that Breakfast in the Classroom is a good program, there are not quite enough students in the White Hall district who are eligible for it.

“We don’t have quite enough students who qualify to make it feasible,” Smith said. “We are kind of on the edge of where it is financially feasible but as poverty levels in our area continue to rise we will consider it in the future.”

The full cost of breakfast and lunch in the White Hall district could not be determined before press time.

ADE figures for the White Hall School District include:

• Moody Elementary School with 154 of 363 (42 percent) qualifying, including 126 free and 28 reduced price;

• Gandy Elementary School with 165 of 324 (51 percent) qualifying, including 119 free and 46 reduced price;

• Taylor Elementary School with 194 of 373 (52 percent) qualifying, including 160 free and 34 reduced price;

• White Hall High School with 313 of 949 (33 percent) qualifying, including 237 free and 76 reduced price;

• White Hall Junior High School with 247 of 627 (39 percent) qualifying, including 195 free and 52 reduced price;

• Hardin Elementary School with 109 of 235 (46 percent) qualifying, including 85 free and 24 reduced price.