‘What our kids need’: no cost meals in WNC schools

All students in Haywood and Jackson counties will have access to free lunches this school year. File photo All students in Haywood and Jackson counties will have access to free lunches this school year. File photo

Every student in Haywood and Jackson County Schools can expect no cost breakfast and lunch in the coming school year, and Macon County is not far behind in meeting that mark as well. 

“This is what our kids need,” said Jackson County Schools Superintendent Dana Ayers.

During the June 25 meeting of the Jackson County Board of Education, Ayers announced the realization of a goal she and her staff had been working on for some time.

“Over the last couple months, Laura Cabe and I have been working to figure out a way to feed all our kids at no cost,” said Ayers.

In Jackson County, Blue Ridge School, Blue Ridge Early College, Smoky Mountain Elementary, Cullowhee Valley and Jackson Community School all qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision, a non-pricing meal service option for schools in low-income areas.

The CEP program allows schools to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications for free and reduced lunch. Instead, schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF), or Medicaid benefits, as well as children who are certified for free meals without an application because they are homeless, migrant, enrolled in Head Start or in foster care.

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Any district, group of schools in a district or individual school with 25% or more students participating in these programs qualifies for CEP.

Once a certain school qualifies for the CEP program, thereby allowing all students at the school to access free breakfast and lunch, that school remains in the program and can continue offering no cost meals for a five-year period, after which the school is reassessed.

While those five schools in Jackson County currently qualify for the CEP program and students there were set to receive no-cost meals, Ayers and her staff were concerned for the students at all remaining Jackson County schools.

“We went and advocated to our commissioners and asked for an additional half a million dollars so that we can feed all of our students and they said yes,” Ayers told the school board last month.

The additional funding will cover breakfast and lunch for all Jackson County schools that are not CEP eligible. This will include the Catamount School, a lab school operated by Western Carolina University, which is moving its operation from Smoky Mountain High School to WCU this fall.

“That means every kid in Jackson County will get a no cost breakfast and lunch for the 2024-25 school year,” Ayers said. “I have to say thank you to our commissioners for making this happen. It’s a one-year deal, but we’ll just keep asking for it every single year after that. And we fully expect our numbers for school nutrition to increase.” 

JCPS requested the $500,000 necessary to fund meals for non-CEP eligible schools during the county’s budget process. In her request to the commission Ayers noted that several surrounding counties — Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania, Haywood, Graham and Swain — provide no cost meals for all their schools.

In Haywood County, Director of School Nutrition Alison Francis said that all schools qualify for and are participating in the CEP program for the 2024-25 school year, as they did during the 2023-24 school year.

“That is the half million-dollar burden that we’re asking you all to support,” Ayers told the commission. “We want to make it equitable for all of our students across the district.” 

All five Jackson County commissioners were immediately onboard with the request, noting the importance of school nutrition for low-income families.

“You just don’t realize how many kids don’t have the money,” said Commissioner Todd Bryson.

Commissioner John Smith pointed out that some families fall through the cracks economically.

“They’re living on that edge,” Smith said. “Their parents make a little too much money to qualify for free or reduced lunch, and yet they can’t afford to send food with them.”

Ayers noted that providing no cost meals to all students removes any social stigma or technical barrier associated with free and reduced lunch registration. However, she also pointed out that even for families who have been able to afford buying or packing lunch in the past, that situation may be changing.

“Even if it’s not a struggling family, the cost of food has gone up exorbitantly,” said Ayers. “Even my own kid, when I pack lunch, it’s not a three-dollar meal like it used to be… so this would be a true community service opportunity for all of our families.” 

In Macon County, all schools except for Highlands School and Franklin High School qualify for the CEP program and thereby receive free lunch and breakfast.

During the school board’s June 27 meeting, board members asked School Nutrition Director David Lightner whether that situation had changed.

“Prior to today, I would have told you no and that it would continue this coming year as it has been this school year,” said Lightner. “But there was a special called meeting this afternoon with the state about a house bill with the grant, incentivizing schools to add additional CEP schools. So, there is still potential, but I need to get some more clarification.” 

Macon County Schools does not currently qualify for district wide CEP according to the 2024 Annual Notification of Schools Eligibility Report.

Macon County school board member Hillary Wilkes brought up the case of the Jackson County Commission opting to fund the gap in order to provide free meals to all students.

“I’ve had people reach out to me because … in Jackson County they just passed through their county commission to fund the schools that were not covered by the [CEP] grant,” Wilkes told the board. “As we know, it means the world to families to be able to have these meals covered for their kids and a lot of kids, this is where they’re getting their food during the school year.” 

Lightner told the board that he would come back to them with an estimate on what it would cost to cover meals for the two schools that don’t qualify for CEP — Highlands School and Franklin High School. The school system is also looking at grant funding to cover the gap.

Lightner later told The Smoky Mountain news that based on the federal reimbursement rates for last school year, the Macon County Schools nutrition program would need about $152,450 to cover lunches for paid students at Franklin High School and Highlands School. However, the actual amount would likely be higher since rates will be different for the 2024-25 school year. Those rates have not yet been released.

“After consultation with our regional consultant, CEP will not be feasible for Franklin High School or Highlands School for the upcoming school year,” Lightner said. “We continue to offer universal free breakfast at these schools and will continue to look for opportunities to feed lunch to these schools at no cost in the future.”

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