School officials in Eden and Johnson are working to sign up students for free and reduced lunch after the elementary schools lost their certifications to offer free lunch for all.

For the past five years, elementary school students in Eden Central and Johnson Elementary schools have received free lunch, regardless of household income. That is because a certain percentage of the students’ households receive benefits through such programs as Reach Up and 3SquaresVT.

The Community Eligibility Provision — or CEP — arose through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, with the intent of allowing for direct certification for free and reduced lunch based on participation in these other benefit programs, as opposed to making parents fill out paperwork to determine eligibility. 

But now, the percentage of students whose families are enrolled in these programs has fallen, and school officials are figuring out how to keep everyone fed.

“We started out this year with families having to fill out forms and families paying for meals again, with the expectation that there will be many, many families who will not be able to pay for those meals,” said Karyl Kent, director of nutritional services for the Lamoille North merged district.

For the past five years, federal law has allowed for reimbursement for lunch for schools in which at least 40 percent of the student population receives Reach Up and 3SquaresVT benefits. In Lamoille North, only two schools qualified — Eden and Johnson.

This year, however, Eden students’ rate of participation in benefit programs fell to 37.5 percent, while Johnson’s rate fell to 33.1 percent.

“Now we’re seeing, in this year and the next two years, schools that, four years ago were just meeting that threshold, and the socio-economic landscape in Vermont has shifted and started to recover from the recession, and there are fewer kids who are enrolled in 3SquaresVT and Reach Up. Over the next two to three years we’re going to see a lot of schools dealing with these same struggles,” said Rebecca Mitchell, child nutrition initiatives manager for Hunger Free Vermont.

During the previous school year, 63 schools in Vermont were eligible and took part in the lunch reimbursement program. This year, that number has fallen to 49.

“The number of students who are directly certified (through Reach Up and 3SquaresVT) is falling, and that’s because there are fewer people participating in these programs,” said Rosie Krueger, state director of nutrition for the Agency of Education.

Both Kent and Krueger emphasized that the change in eligibility in Eden and Johnson does not in any way mean that the lunch programs are being eliminated, or that students will go hungry.

Moreover, officials with Lamoille North will not follow the example of schools in other parts of the country in which children who can’t pay for lunch are shamed or their parents are threatened with arrest.

“We’re going to feed kids regardless,” Kent said. “We’re not hounding people to pay these bills. That’s not what we do. We work with families on payment plans, if that is feasible. We do not do any kind of shaming or hounding people.”

In Lamoille North, lunch costs $3 a day, while breakfast costs $2.

“Students will continue to be fed. It’s just that the schools are going to have to find another funding source,” Krueger said.

Officials with Lamoille North are looking into Provision 2 of the National School Lunch Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under Provision 2, a school submits enrollment figures, and those figures lock in the reimbursement rate for the next four years.

“It is potential program to get back to free meals for all kids,” Kent said.

However, participation in Provision 2 requires an up-front financial investment from the district.

“We’re seeing schools coming off of CEP and implementing Provision 2,” Mitchell said. “It takes financial forecasting on the part of food service directors and business offices, as well as a willingness and recognition on the part of administrators and school boards to say, ‘Yes this is something we value enough to prioritize and budget for as as a school district or as a supervisory union.’”

In the meantime, Kent and other school officials are taking steps to have parents apply for free or reduced lunch when the schools hold open house events in October.

“We’ll see if we can catch some families who weren’t applying or just just didn’t know how,” Kent said.

In the meantime, parents can apply for free or reduced lunch now online at bit.ly/LamoilleNorthFRL.

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