Wednesday, June 12, 2024

GISD to opt out of free lunch program due to revenue loss

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Starting this fall, Granbury Independent School District students will no longer receive free breakfast and lunch through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision program, due to a district revenue loss of $427,000.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas. CEP allows the nation's highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications, according to the United States Department of Agriculture website.

Last May, the GISD board of trustees approved the CEP program for the 2023-24 academic year.

"CEP, it is a special program that school districts can do if they're already operating under the National School and School Breakfast Program,” GISD’s Director of Child Nutrition Amy Whiteley said during the board meeting last year. “There's a formula that goes with it that allows us to be able to feed our students breakfast and lunch for free for the entire year. It's one of those programs that was created several years ago, and districts that qualify for it, they have to be within a certain percentage of economically disadvantaged to be able to operate under that program — and we do qualify for that.”

The program operates on a four-year qualification cycle, meaning once a district qualifies, it will qualify for the program for the next four years.

Whiteley previously added though, that GISD can still opt out of the program at the end of any year if desired.

During a regularly scheduled school board meeting May 20, Whiteley explained that although the CEP program offered many positives, it is not sustainable for the district to continue the program next year.

"This is a special nutrition program that allows a district to opt in to, and it provides free breakfast and lunch for all students," Whiteley explained to the public during the May 20 meeting. “For this year, that is something that we did opt in to, and we tried it to see if it was going to work. We did have a couple of challenges.”

Whiteley said there was a 38% total increase in the breakfast meals served for 2023-24 at GISD and a 27% total increase in the lunch meals served.

While the increase in meals served was a positive for the district, it also meant that both food and paper costs increased. In total, GISD food costs went up about $434,000 and paper costs went up about $8,000 for this past school year.

Since households did not complete the free and reduced-price meal applications this year, the child nutrition department did not receive the reduced and paid meal payments — resulting in a revenue loss totaling $427,104.

"The child nutrition program carries an excessively large fund balance that's required to be spent over a three-year period, so we were looking for ways to spend that money,” GISD Superintendent Jeremy Glenn said during the meeting. “It's not something that's sustainable at this level whenever parents don't complete the free and reduced applications, so that was one negative of the program. But the other big negative of the program is there are effects that go across the district.”

Glenn explained that when families don’t fill out the free and reduced lunch applications, it affects the state comp ed and title funding. It also affects how students are coded when they take standardized tests.

"Kids are categorized not only by ethnicity, but they're categorized by economic status as well,” Glenn said. “So, now you have kids that their parents didn't fill out the form so we're not getting into the credit category for STAAR testing, we're not receiving the title funding, we're not receiving the state comp ed funding, and we're not receiving the child nutrition funding on top of it.

“There were a lot of really positive things to come out of this program. Certainly, everyone loved the fact that we were able to provide free lunches after COVID ... It was a great program to opt into to help kids, but at this point, it's just not sustainable. I think Amy did a great job of putting this into numbers, but I also think it's important that everyone understands how important it is, not only to child nutrition but across the district that those free and reduced applications are filled out.”

Board President Barbara Townsend asked Whiteley if families are going to have to continue filling out applications again next year if they want to receive the free and reduced lunch.

Whiteley said all other campuses — except for Emma Roberson Early Learning Academy — will complete the application once it comes out in July.

"We're proposing that Emma Roberson be the only campus that continues CEP because they don't have pre-K across the district. They're at their own campus,” she explained.

Students can continue having free breakfast and lunch during the 30-day grace period or until the application is processed, whichever comes first. The grace period ends Sept. 26.

The Texas Department of Agriculture also announced school breakfast changes for the 2024-25 academic year. Students who qualify for reduced-price meals through this program will not be charged $.30 for breakfast starting September 2024. Breakfast will be at no cost to qualifying students from September 2024 through May 2025. Whiteley said the child nutrition department is currently gathering more information to hopefully implement this program soon.

“I appreciate all your hard work into this program and tracking these numbers and having this information for us,” Vice President Courtney Gore said. “I see all those posts on Facebook and social media, and what y'all do with the kids is pretty amazing.”