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Area schools study new lunch option

Three healthy food items from fruit vegetable serving cart during lunch school  cafeteria.  | AP Phofile ORG XMIT:

Three healthy food items from the fruit and vegetable serving cart during lunch in a school cafeteria. | AP Photo, file ORG XMIT: CST1402251800217750

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Updated: July 11, 2014 6:04AM



Several local school districts are exploring a new federal school-lunch provision that could allow more low-income students to receive healthy meals and potentially save districts money as well.

The Community Eligibility Provision — part of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids law — would eliminate household applications for free and reduced school lunch programs and the costs involved in processing those applications.

To qualify, more than 40 percent of a school’s student population must be eligible based on the number of households receiving benefits through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, homeless students, migrant youth, runaways, Head Start students and foster children. In exchange, schools would be required to provide school breakfast and lunch free to all students.

Schools have until June 30 to decide whether or not to opt in. Any costs above the federal reimbursement would have to be covered with local funds, so schools may opt out at the end of each school year.

In Lake County, 47 schools are identified as meeting the 40 percent benchmark, including some in East Chicago, Gary, Hammond, Lake Station, River Forest, Lake Ridge and Merrillville.

Julie Boettger, food service director for the School City of Hammond, said a preliminary analysis shows that the Community Eligible Provision would be a positive option for the city’s elementary schools, where 82 percent of students get free or reduced lunches.

“But a decision will not be made until the data has been presented to the (school board members next week), and they have an opportunity to discuss,” Boettger wrote in an email.

One of the biggest potential benefits for school districts is the elimination of student-level meal charges, thus eliminating the need for follow-up for unpaid meal accounts.

Hammond has a current unpaid meal balance of about $19,000, and much of that starts in the lower grades, Boettger said.

Many of the unpaid accounts are held by children who would likely qualify for free and reduced lunches, but for whatever reason, parents haven’t submitted the necessary paperwork.

Overdue accounts are mainly a problem at the elementary school level because middle and high school students aren’t allowed to charge a lunch.

Four of Lake Ridge’s five schools qualify for the Community Eligible Provision, but food service director Toni Rattray said they’re not going to opt in at this time.



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