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Alachua County Schools Expands Free Meal Program For 2018-19 School Year

Kelly Thomas, lunchroom manager at Rawlings Elementary, in Gainesville, which has offered free meals since the Community Eligibility Provision program began in 2015. (Joshua Baker/WUFT News)
Kelly Thomas, lunchroom manager at Rawlings Elementary, in Gainesville, which has offered free meals since the Community Eligibility Provision program began in 2015. (Joshua Baker/WUFT News)

Kelly Thomas helps feed around 300 kids every school day at Rawlings Elementary where she has been the food and nutrition services manager since January.

“Food fuels our bodies,” Thomas said. “One of the best things we can do for our kids is make sure that they get a full nutritious meal.”

Rawlings, located in Gainesville at 3500 NE 15th St., has been a participant in the Community Eligibility Provision program — which offers free meals to all students without the need for an application — since 2015.

The school year began Monday, and all but four Alachua County public schools will offer free meals through the program to students this school year regardless of parent income and without need for an application.

Fourteen schools will be added to the Community Eligibility Provision program in 2018, which will automatically qualify students for free breakfast and lunch.

“The kids don’t have to worry if they don’t have money or about what’s going on at home,” Thomas said. “They’re just going to come and eat.”

Thomas said food is an essential part of making sure that students are performing their best.

“If they’re not full, they’re not paying attention,” she said. “If they’re distracted, they’re not getting what they need out of the day.”

A summer need fulfilled

Alachua County’s free summer meals program has now served students for more than 20 years. Breakfast and lunch are available for free four days a week in the summer to children under 18, regardless of where they attend school during the fall and spring.

This USDA-funded program works through local schools and community centers, and this summer, it expanded to 87 locations, 24 more than last year. A food truck reaches three of these locations.

According to a study conducted by Feeding America, the child food insecurity rate in Alachua County is 23.3 percent. That means almost 1 in 4 children do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. About 64 percent of them will be likely to qualify for income-based federal nutrition assistance, according to Feeding America.

“Most of the people who live in the area are low-income families,” said Maxine Latimer, lead facilitator at the SWAG Family Resource Center in southwest Gainesville. SWAG is one of the sites the food truck visits. “The breakfast is a big starter for them because if they don’t have to provide breakfast for the kids, they don’t have to spend so much money.”

Many Alachua County students participate in the free and reduced lunch program during the year, so there is a need to fill in the summer as well, said Caron Rowe, of the district's Food and Nutrition Services division. When school was out for summer, parents still needed the help.

Alachua County public schools serve about 2 million meals a year while school is in session, Rowe said. In the summer, they serve about 110,000 meals.

The locations will serve anyone who looks under the age of 18, as no identification is required. Parents may also come in to eat with their children, but they must pay $1.75 for breakfast or $3.25 for lunch.

A food truck also makes rounds through three neighborhoods: Hidden Oaks, Tower Oaks, and Linton Oaks Apartments. They reach those who may not necessarily have the means of transportation to get them to the other sites serving hot meals.

“For the future, I just want to see continuation of the program, just making sure they have access to programs like this in different areas,” Latimer said. “It’s a meal in the morning, and having a fresh start to the day is so important.”

The program hopes to continue to increase its numbers each year, Rowe said.

The school year ahead

The 14 schools are the largest addition to the program in Alachua County since it began with 24 in the 2015-16 school year. Seven more were added for 2016-17, and two were added the following year.

“It’s really great for parents to not have to worry about whether or not their kids will receive a nutritious meal at school,” Rowe said.

It's part of the National School Lunch Program, and Rowe said schools are deemed eligible by the USDA based on a district’s need for free or reduced lunch and the number of students already participating in out-of-school government programs.

Alachua County will be reimbursed $3.48 per lunch and $2.14 per breakfast through the national program.

The county is eligible for the program for four years, Rowe said, but when qualified schools are added, this four-year period is renewed.

Jenni Roberson, assistant principal at High Springs Community School, experienced the program's value at her previous school, Shell Elementary.

“Food is a basic need,” Roberson said. “Once that need is met, we can focus on learning.”

Roberson said students are able to focus and learn better when they have eaten a meal.

“You can tell a difference with kids that have eaten and those who have not,” Roberson said.

Roberson is excited that the CEP program will be provided to the students during her first year at High Springs, as she saw the effects that the program had on students at Shell.

The four public schools not in the CEP program are Buchholz High, Hidden Oak Elementary, Meadowbrook Elementary and P.K. Yonge Developmental School.

Last year, Alachua County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services served 2.9 million lunches and almost 2 million breakfasts to students, Rowe said.

“We’re doing our part for education by making sure everyone is well fed in school,” Rowe said.

These schools have the program for the first time in 2018-19:

  • Chiles Elementary
  • Eastside High
  • The Einstein School
  • Expressions Learning Academy
  • Fort Clarke Middle
  • Gainesville High
  • Glen Springs Elementary
  • High Springs Community
  • Kanapaha Middle
  • Loften Center
  • Newberry High
  • Oak View Middle
  • Santa Fe High
  • Talbot Elementary
Alexandria Ng is a reporter for the WUFT newsroom. She can be reached at 954-415-3713 or by email alexandriang@ufl.edu.
Joshua is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.