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Sumner Schools Expand Free Meal Program

Students at four more Sumner County schools will have access to free breakfast and lunch regardless of their family's income when school resumes in August.

Different from the federal free and reduced lunch plan that requires families to meet certain income eligibility requirements, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a universal meal plan that permits eligible districts and schools to provide meal service to all students at no charge, regardless of economic status.

Currently, Vena Stuart Elementary School is the only Sumner school participating in the federal program.

Sumner County Board of Education members considered Tuesday whether or not to apply for the program by grouping together four Gallatin schools. They include Benny Bills Elementary School, Gallatin High School, Guild Elementary School and R.T. Fisher School.

To be eligible to participate, a district, school, or groups of schools from the same district must have at least 40 percent of their student population eligible for free and reduced lunches. Each school does not have to meet the 40 percent threshold individually if enrolling a district or groups of school within a district. However, the average percentage must be at least 40 percent.

School officials noted at a study session June 7 federal legislation to raise the required percentage to 60 percent. That would disqualify Gallatin High School that has 52.9 percent of its students who receive free and reduced lunches, and R.T. Fisher at 54 percent.

With the federal government essentially reimbursing the local district for seven out of 10 students who use the program, much of Tuesday’s discussion centered around how the program will financially impact the local district.

Director of Schools Del Phillips told board members the school district expected to make up the difference with the sale of a la cart items at Gallatin High School. Only high schools are permitted to sell a la cart items.

School Board member Tim Brewer expressed concern over using tax dollars to pay for meals for children who are not economically disadvantaged.

“We’re taking four schools and we’re going to give everybody in there a free lunch so that we can get a few extra ones in there,” he said. “I certainly want every kid to eat, but in my mind that’s a little difficult to swallow spending taxpayer money that way.”

Phillips and several other board members said the program would make the meals available to those who didn’t apply for free and reduced meals for whatever reason, but who still needed a free meal.

“There will be individuals that do not come close to the threshold of free and reduced lunch that will eat free,” he said. “On the flip side there are kids who are caught in the middle that will be helped.”

Board member Patricia Brown noted that over 52 percent of the students at Gallatin High School are considered economically disadvantaged by the state.

“We do know there is a number there of students who don’t apply for it who need it,” she said. “We know we have kids not eating that need the food.”

Although it’s a four-year program, Phillips said the school district can decide after one year whether or not to continue with it.

“There’s so many questions here,” said Brewer who suggested tabling the idea. “It is a gamble. I’d like to see little more research on it.”

There are a number of families on a tight budget who don’t meet the free and reduced criteria who could benefit from the program, noted board member Andy Daniels.

“If we can help one kid, it’s worth it,” he said. “Yes, I agree it’s a risk, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. We’ve got some financial flexibility built in if it works. I think it’s an opportunity to help a lot of kids.”

Chairman Beth Cox tried to introduce an amendment to label the program as a pilot program, but Phillips said that was unnecessary since the program would be reviewed in a year. The measure passed 7 to 3.

Cox, who ended up voting no along with Brewer and Jeff Cordell, said her biggest concerns were that the federal program could change, and that other schools would ask why the program wasn’t made available to them. She said she also wanted to see more information on whether or not the program will increase academic achievement.

Artcile Courtesy of The Tennessean written by Tena Lee. Reach Tena Lee at tlee@mtcngroup.com or at 615-575-7116. Follow her on Twitter @tenalee1.