Community Eligibility Option Allows Some Kentucky Students to Eat Lunch Without Paying

Oct 17, 2013

Unlike many government programs, federal reimbursements for school meals are not being affected by the government shutdown. But schools can choose from different federal programs like Free and Reduced meals or Community Eligibility to cover costs for students in need.

One of those programs allows all students in a qualifying school or district to eat for free.

Children file in at Mayfield Middle School for lunch. The popular option? Dominoes Pizza with wheat crust.

The students also have the option to choose a crisp, green salad and fresh fruit. The pizza is a regular special that children and their parents have come to expect, despite its junk food reputation.

But the most surprising part of this lunch isn’t the food being served. The surprise: cafeteria worker McKenzie Waggoner said if students are paying at the cash register, it’s only for extra items.

“There is a lot of them that do buy extra like water and stuff and extra food,” she said.

The standard lunch is free for all students at Mayfield Middle because the school participates in the Community Eligibility Option, or CEO. That means all students, not just those who would qualify for free and reduced lunch, pay nothing for lunch basics.

To become a CEO school or district more than 40 percent of students must qualify for free lunch. Qualifying students include migrants, children in foster care or Head Start and those from families receiving Food Stamps.

Students at CEO schools eat for free without filling out the forms required for the Free and Reduced program. School Nutrition Director Leah Mills said this eliminates administrative costs required for processing those forms.

“You’re paying sometimes staff overtime to process those applications pretty much around the clock,” she said. “You start doing that in the summer as quickly as possible. There’s also the printing of all the letters because every family has to be notified whether they’re free, reduced or denied benefits.

"You have to print that. You have to mail it. And then there’s also the loss of revenue if they don’t apply until September and they could have been claimed as free all that time.”

All Mayfield Independent students receive free lunch and breakfast. CEO ensures all children are well fed, because Mills said before the program some parents felt shame or embarrassment asking for help.

Sometimes there’s hesitancy for parents to fill out applications by not wanting to share information, maybe not wanting their student to be overtly identified, so that can eliminate some of that,” she said.

Elementary and preschools in Ballard County also participate in CEO. That county’s School Nutrition Director Amber Hayes said families with a student in one of those schools saves $500 each year by not paying for meals during the school day. But the schools aren’t missing that money. It comes to them in the form of government reimbursements.

Hayes said that money combined with sales of baked potato chips pay for kitchen upkeep and other costs .

 “We make money on what’s called a la carte sales,” she said. “ So it’s not a great deal of money but it’s enough to cover costs say if we have an oven that goes out.”

Hayes said school nutrition directors compare the total reimbursement estimates for federal programs like CEO and Free and Reduced lunch to find the best fit. The amount a district can receive depends on variables like student demographics and participation.

 “It’s a big numbers game,” Hayes said. “ It’s trying to make the best for your kids. And when it all comes down to it in the end, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Back in Mayfield, School Cafeteria Manager Vickie Cope helps serve lunch to middle schoolers. She said the federal program hasn’t affected her work.

“We still got the same stuff that we had gotten all along in our items,” Cope said.

But she said the new option does affect the pay structure and the amount of government reimbursements.