School meals are already cheap or free for some Elkhart County students.
Now, meals could be free for all students who attend schools where a high proportion of students are in need, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Schools with more than 40 percent of students on SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or another means-tested assistance program could apply for a new USDA program that gives every student in those schools a free lunch.
Five schools in Elkhart — Beardsley, Mary Beck, Mary Daly, Roosevelt and Woodland — qualify, according to food services director Pam Melcher.
Two elementary schools in Goshen — Chamberlain and Chandler — and two in the Concord district — South Side and West Side — could also be eligible, according to the USDA’s analysis of those schools’ percentages of students in need.
The USDA touts the program, called Community Eligibility Provision, as a way to streamline paperwork at schools where kids are getting a lot of government aid.
It could also cut down on work for food service employees, who could potentially set up kiosks where students grab their own food instead of collecting money in cafeteria lines, a release from the USDA suggested.
Sherry Faulkner, director of food services for Goshen schools, said she’s happy this new program is being offered to schools.
“This may provide opportunities for free meals at schools where that wasn't available before,” she said. “In schools that do (the new program), parents won’t have to pay for lunches anymore, no matter what their eligibility.”
The USDA says Chamberlain and Chandler elementary schools in Goshen are eligible, but Faulkner said she’s not sure exactly what would change at those schools.
Chamberlain and West Goshen Elementary are both already giving free meals to every student under provision 2 of the federal school meal program, because both schools have a high percentage of students who qualify for aid.
Ninety percent of Chamberlain students already qualify for free or reduced price lunch, while 80 percent of West Goshen students qualify. West Goshen was not one of the schools identified as eligible for the new program.
Schools have until June 30 to decide whether to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision, and changes will go into effect for the 2014-15 school year.
Concord’s South Side and West Side elementary schools could qualify for the program, but Concord’s food services director Janice Vander Reyden said the district hasn't made a decision on whether to apply.
“At this point in time, we are still in that learning process and we aren't really ready or able to make a decision one way or another on it,” Vander Reyden said. “My managers and I have discussed it just very briefly.”
She added that 68 percent of South Side students and 89 percent of West Side students qualify for free or reduced price meals already.
Elkhart’s Pam Melcher also said the district is working out whether this new program would be beneficial, partially because of its financial impact.
School districts determine how many students are directly certified for aid under SNAP or similar programs and multiply that number by 1.6, Melcher said.
That’s how much schools will get reimbursed from the federal government if they offer free meals to all under the Community Eligibility Provision plan. The rest is up to school districts to pay.
The closer a school is to getting 100 percent reimbursement from the USDA, the better it is for the school district, Melcher said.
Melcher said a decision on whether Elkhart schools will participate in Community Eligibility will be made within the next two weeks.