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Local school districts to participate in free National School Lunch Program

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 12:16 a.m.
Clairton first-graders, from left, Lilyann Ellis, Aliya Plummer and Nia Cheadle enjoy a selection of sandwiches, fresh fruit and milk during lunch at school.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Clairton first-graders, from left, Lilyann Ellis, Aliya Plummer and Nia Cheadle enjoy a selection of sandwiches, fresh fruit and milk during lunch at school.

For students of several local school districts, lunch for everyone may soon be on the house thanks to the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently introduced a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) for the National School Lunch Program offered through the Department of Food and Nutrition Service. The four-year CEP program would provide free breakfasts and lunches in districts or schools in which at least 40 percent of the students are already deemed to be directly certified for free or reduced lunches. Those are students whose families do not submit applications for free or reduced meals, but are instead eligible directly by the state because they receive food stamps, medical assistance or other government aid.

Margarita Maisterrena, public affairs director for the Mid-Atlantic office of FNS, said CEP was established in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.

“It's designed to provide schools and local education authorities that predominantly serve low-income children with an alternative to household applications for free and reduced price meals,” she said. “CEP was actually phased in over a four-year period that began in the 2011-2012 school year. Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan participated the first year, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Washington D.C. participated in 2012-2013 and Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Massachusetts in 2013-2014. (This upcoming school year) is the first year it will be available nationwide.”

Locally, McKeesport Area, Clairton City and Duquesne City school districts are among those considering the program. West Mifflin Area School District superintendent Daniel Castagna, Elizabeth Forward School District superintendent Bart Rocco and South Allegheny School District food service director Marygail Costello said each of their respective districts researched the initiative but do not qualify. Steel Valley School District superintendent secretary Kim Watkins said both superintendent Edward Wehrer and business consultant John Yaklich analyzed the program but decided not to participate.

Clairton City schools, however, would qualify according to public relations director Alexis Barna-Trubiani, and she said the initiative could be hugely beneficial for students and parents.

“Personally, I'm very excited about the program,” she said. “We have a select group of students who do pay for their lunch and some days, they don't bring money or don't want to spend it. This way, all the students would be guaranteed two hot meals every day.”

Maisterrena said the same meal standards that apply to districts already participating in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs would apply to those in CEP.

“The meals must meet the USDA's meal pattern requirements which are consistent with the dietary guidelines for Americans,” she said. “In January 2012, the USDA issued new standards that increased the amount of fruit and vegetables served, emphasized whole grain rich foods, limits calories and reduces saturated fat and sodium.”

While the initiative would eliminate the hassle for parents to fill out the necessary paperwork for free and reduced meals and prevent students from being singled out due to any possible stigma of receiving those meals, Barna-Trubiani said it would not cut down on any paperwork at the district level.

“A lunch coordinator in the program would have to keep a spreadsheet of all the students who are already directly certified and those who would normally be on reduced or paid lunches so the district can maintain a percentage that would keep it eligible for the program,” she said.

The financial process for the initiative would work like this: The identified student percentage multiplied by a factor of 1.6 would equal the percent of total meals served that would be reimbursed at the federal free rate. The remaining percent of total meals served is then reimbursed at the federal paid rate. Any meal costs in excess of the total federal reimbursement must be covered through non-federal sources.

For McKeesport Area, which has about 61 percent of its 3,800 students that are directly certified, the district could gain approximately $116,000 in reimbursements through the provision compared to its current paper application system with some students paying full price for meals.

At a school board meeting Wednesday, Kelly Patterson, regional director of the district's food service management company, Nutrition Inc., said, “Everybody would eat for free. It's a ‘have your cake and eat it too' program' at the moment.”

Though questions still remain about how the program would affect Title 1 and E-Rate programs that provide financial assistance and discounted telecommunication services to qualifying schools, Barna-Trubiani said the initiative is definitely worth pursuing. Eligible districts that wish to use the program must notify the state no later than June 30.

“The students are obviously are first priority,” she said. “And, for a small district like ours, this could be a great deal for everyone involved.”

Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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