Troup County, West Point students to receive free lunches

Published 8:30 am Thursday, May 16, 2024

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Troup County School System will be providing free breakfast and lunch to all students next school year. During the TCSS board work session on Tuesday night, the Director of Nutrition, Diane Pain, announced the district would be able to provide students with free meals through the federal program Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) starting July 1. The final resolution will be voted on Thursday.

CEP is provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Services branch. The program is valid for four years, after which the district must reapply. USDA reimburses the district for the cost of school meals, depending on demographics.

According to the USDA website, the CEP calculates the amount reimbursed by “using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).”

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Pain said that in years past, the school district had only had some of the schools qualify, or qualify for a percentage of reimbursement.

“So [the Nutrition Department] had enough money to finagle the budget to cover more kids and more schools….Now we’ll get reimbursed 100% for all kids that eat.” Pain said.

Pain said there was some initial pushback when trying to get CEP in the schools, even at a lower reimbursement rate.

“I had a hard time getting it started in Troup County. People were kind of opposed to it and thought that it’s a parent’s responsibility to make sure a child can eat, and I didn’t think that was the right answer. So I pushed for CEP,” Pain said.

A reason that they were able to get 100 percent reimbursement for all schools is a change in how CEP calculates needs. Pain said that now Medicaid is considered one of the “means-tested programs.” Since that was added, more kids fell into the eligibility category. Around 62.5 percent of the students must be eligible for the district to receive 100 percent reimbursement.

The program will effectively wipe out the school lunch debt issue that has, in the past, forced schools to pay the difference.

Last year, Troup High School had $27,000 of school lunch debt, and Lagrange High had $17,000, Pain explained.

“So we won’t have to worry about balances going from school to school or notifying parents that ‘you are free at this school but not free at this school,’” said Pain. “It’ll be a wonderful burden off of the parent’s shoulders, as well as some of our schools that are tasked with paying the unpaid balances if they can’t recoup from the students.”

For the kids that can not pay the school is required to feed them.

However, those students get a specific entree, typically a cheese sandwich, according to Pain.

With CEP, kids will have the same access to the variety of food offered by Chartwell Schools, the district’s food service.

The company has received recognition nationally for recipes and programs within TCSS. Chartwell works with students to develop recipes and expose them to different cuisines through the Global Eats program, as well as upscale dining with a food truck.

A marketing specialist with Chartwell, Nicole Gibson, said her kids go to school in a county that also has 100% CEP reimbursement.

“The biggest thing is you’re offered everything…So I tell my kids all the time if you’re coming home hungry, that’s on you,” laughed Gibson. “Because you have the opportunity to fill up that tray.”

“In general, the students that are affected are not the poverty-stricken students; they qualify for free and reduced meals, so they’re covered,” Pain explained. “So the ones that are falling into this little hole are the ones that income wise their parents are the household don’t meet the guidelines.”

Pain said that saving money not only helps the schools free up funds, but the parents as well.

For the school district, the saved cost of making sure all the kids eat regardless of income, can go to other nutrition programs.

Since the USDA is funding school lunches, the district can expand its summer meal program around the county, and do giveaways, and other events to make sure all the county’s children are being fed nutritious meals.