MUSCATINE — Few meal plans at the elementary and middle schools thrill like 'breakfast for lunch' days, according to Alisha Eggers. Pancakes with sausage, tater tots, strawberries and a carton of milk. What's not to like?
Eggers, Muscatine Community Schools's food and nutrition supervisor, described her job as trying to get the most students fed across the district as possible. And for the first time, four schools in the district are eligible for a program that might help fill some of the meal gap.
At the Monday, July 9, meeting, the school board, approved the four eligible schools to enroll in the CEP program. Next year, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and McKinley elementary schools will all offer free breakfasts and lunches to its students.
If a student’s household falls within a certain income strata, they can qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch. In the 2017-2018 school year, of the district’s 4,746 K-12 enrolled students, 2,223 qualified for free lunch, 325 for reduced; 53.69 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. But while a student may be eligible for a free meal at school, there are some barriers.
In order to enroll an eligible student in the program, there is an application available in English and in Spanish that must be filled out. It asks for information on the children in the household as well as adults and income produced by the household. Eggers said she is working to make the application more available by getting online and helping families walk through the application. But she knows some students get left out.
"Some families just don't understand how it works," Eggers said. She said that some parents might not prioritize the application thinking that once they've filled it out once, they no longer need to fill it out again.
Students will be fed whether they have money in their account or not, but the the debt does stack up.
At the end of 2017-2018 school year, 152 free lunch-eligible students had a negative balance on their account — meaning while being eligible, they did not fill out the application for the new school year. They owed a total of $1,954.65. Thirty-six reduced lunch students owed $846.91. Three hundred sixty-five students that pay full price owed $15,079.18.
Students with a negative account balance receive automated phone calls Sunday through Thursday that give them the balance.
"People don't like the calls, but it gives them notice of what is on their account," Eggers said.
While some students bring a lunch or opt out of eating, the concern Eggers and her staff at Muscatine Community Schools have is how the school feed all the hungry students.
"They need fuel to learn," Eggers said. "I think it's important our community knows that we do have hungry students here."
Back in 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. One provision of the act allows schools and local educational agencies in low-income areas to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. Called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), it eliminates the free and reduced applications all together.
The CEP is eligible for schools with 40 percent or more students that are certified for free meals without the use of household applications, like certification through SNAP. This is normally a smaller number than those that could be eligible through the application. If the school district clears the threshold, the whole school receives free breakfast and lunch.
"It's less burdensome because we do not have to process free and reduced meal applications," Eggers said. "We don't have to place negative balance phone calls. Parents don't have to receive them. It's a feel-good situation. It feels like the right thing to do to provide families and students."