Georgia will become one of 10 states and the District of Columbia to participate in a federal program designed to streamline the delivery of school meal assistance to more students.
At least two districts in metro Atlanta — Clayton County Schools and Atlanta Public Schools — have signed up so far for the Community Eligibility Option, which was part of the $4.5 billion Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010. Georgia was one of four states invited to join the growing program this upcoming school year before it goes nationwide in 2014-15.
Typically, schools in high-poverty areas where at least 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, breakfast and lunch is provided to all students without collecting applications.
The Community Eligibility Option program eases that application requirement, sparing schools from the paperwork where at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
In Clayton, where 82 percent of students were eligible for the meal assistance in 2010-2011, all students will now be eligible through the 2016-17 school year without having to fill out an application. In APS, where 76 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in 2010-2011, students at 58 schools will get meal assistance without applying this upcoming school year.
“The CEO program will ensure that every child has access to free breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks every day within these selected schools,” said Marilyn Hughes, the director of APS’ Nutrition Department. “Because the schools are located in communities with high levels of need, this program will enable us to provide healthy meals for student success.”
Audrey Hamilton, the director of nutrition services in Clayton, said the district will be able to provide assistance to all students without regard to household income.
“We know that every student will benefit from our decision to participate in CEO,” she said, “and we look forward to serving our students healthy, nutritious meals to support districtwide academic achievement.”
Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan were the first three states chosen to participate in the program during the 2011-2012 school year. New York, Ohio, West Virginia and the District of Columbia came on board in 2012-2013. In addition to Georgia, the states invited to participate in the upcoming school year are Florida, Maryland and Massachusetts.
The following year, the Community Eligibility Option will be available to all districts in the country with schools that meet the eligibility criteria.
Federal education officials said the goal is to improve childhood nutrition, which, if neglected, can limit academic progress.
A Community Eligibility Option fact sheet compiled by the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit group that focuses on nutrition, states: “It doesn’t make sense for high-poverty schools to go through the standard application process to identify the few children who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals.”
David Payne, the president of Southwest and Northwest Atlanta Parents and Partners for Schools, a parent advocacy group, praised APS’ decision to participate in the meal assistance program.
“One of the challenges we always have is we have kids who are hungry,” said Payne, who had three children attend schools in APS. “I work with kids who don’t have the better support systems. When kids come to school hungry, they are unable to focus properly and even pay attention the teacher. Due to better nutrition, their brains should function more properly and be able to receive the information.”
GETTING A HEADSTART
Georgia is one of 10 states and the District of Columbia that are participating in a federal program that allows families in poor areas to skip the process of applying for school meal assistance.
Program participants include:
District of Columbia