Seven CPS schools launch expanded free lunch program

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COLUMBIA – Seven Columbia schools are now receiving free breakfast and lunch. Columbia Public Schools’ (CPS) Nutrition Services Department began a pilot program Tuesday.

The program, Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), is part of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. CEP is a nationwide program that ensures students have access to healthy school meals.

Laina Fullum, CPS Nutrition Services director, said all students enrolled in the selected schools receive free breakfast and lunch daily regardless of free and reduced price status.

Fullum said the seven schools were eligible for the program because the schools met the criteria the USDA uses to measure the provision.

In order to meet the criteria, 40 percent or more families need to qualify for TANF or SNAP benefits through the state department.

“The students benefit because they get to eat for free, and their parents don't have to worry about paying for the meal,” Fullum said.

The district will receive maximum reimbursement for 91.1 percent of participating students and partial reimbursement for 8.9 percent of participating students.  The remaining costs plan to be recouped through increased student participation. 

“It allows us to cover the existing cost of employee wages and benefits,” said Fullum. “We are not in this for a profit.”

Fullum said some surrounding districts have CEP. She said CPS waited a year in order to be sure the district understood what the provision would mean for the schools. 

“We felt like the first year was not going to be beneficial for us, and there were a couple other schools we wanted to include but their threshold was not high enough for us to consider them,” Fullum said.

Susan Emory, West Boulevard Elementary principal, said it’s a great opportunity to pilot a program.

“I’m very excited about it and just very pleased that the district has looked in and researched this opportunity to make sure we are doing all that we can to best provide for the nutritional needs and financial needs of the families of Columbia Public Schools,” Emory said.

Emory said West Boulevard have a high mobility rate with families moving in and out of the school.

“From my perspective, one of the things I need to be the most cognizant of and really proactive about is making sure we are very transparent with families in terms of what buildings are piloting this program and which buildings aren’t,” Emory said.

Fullum said families are still encouraged to complete the free and reduced price application in order to secure benefit coverage at other Columbia Public School locations should a family relocate to a school not included in the CEP program. 

Nationally, school districts participating in CEP have seen an 8 percent increase in school lunch and breakfast participation.

Funds to support the pilot project are provided through the National School Lunch program. 

The following seven schools are participating in program:

  • Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School
  • Benton STEM Elementary School
  • Blue Ridge Elementary School
  • Derby Ridge Elementary School
  • West Boulevard Elementary School
  • CORE (Center of Responsive Education)
  • Douglass High School