CHATHAM – The number of students who receive free or reduced-cost meals at Chatham Elementary School has grown to the point where the school now qualifies for a federal program that makes free lunch and breakfast available to all students.
Monomoy Regional School District officials are preparing to apply to the program and anticipate its implementation in the fall.
As of April, 46.18 percent of students at Chatham Elementary School received free or reduced-price meals, according to district business manager Kathleen Isernio. To qualify for the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), at least 40 percent of students must receive free or reduced-cost meals. If accepted into the program, all CES students would receive free breakfast and lunch, and the district would be reimbursed for the cost by the federal government.
Isernio said she is researching the level of reimbursement to make sure it would cover the school's costs. Currently the price of lunch or breakfast at the school is within the federal guidelines for reimbursable meals, she said.
The school's possible eligibility for the program came out during an audit of the district's lunch programs, said Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter. He was aware the school was moving toward the 40 percent threshold and is indicative, he said, of the struggles faced by many families who live in town year-round.
“There is such a stark contrast between many of our year-round families that have children going to school and what people think about when they think about Chatham,” he said. “Many of them do struggle.”
By contrast, the percentage of Harwich Elementary School students receiving free or reduced-cost meals is 38.7 percent.
Chatham Elementary is located within a poverty zone – an area where 50 percent of the children live below the federal poverty level. In the summer, Food 4 Kids, based at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Orleans, provides USDA-subsidized free lunches to children at the community center across Depot Road from the school. Many kids who participate in the town's summer recreation program take advantage of the lunches, which are provided regardless of income levels. The program provides free lunches to kids in several other locations in Chatham as well as in Harwich and Orleans.
Like all students, kids who receive free or reduced-cost meals have an identification number that they use in the cafeteria check-out line, so that no one is stigmatized for getting the subsidy, Carpenter said. Families must apply to receive the meal subsidy, however.
Under CEP program, families would not have to apply to receive free or reduced-price meals; that would also cut down on paperwork for the district as well as the work involved in determining eligibility and collecting unpaid meal charges (student are not denied food if they cannot pay or their account is zeroed out, Carpenter said).
The CEP program was authorized by Congress as part of the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010. It was phased in over three years in a number of states, including Massachusetts, and became available nationwide in 2014.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides CEP training and technical assistance. Its website states, “The Community Eligibility Provision is an option that can help schools achieve their educational goals by ensuring that children in low-income communities have access to healthy meals at school so they are ready to learn.”
A U.S. Department of Agriculture notification of communities eligible for the CEP program lists three Cape school district – Mashpee, Eastham and Upper Cape Tech – as being nearly eligible to participate in the program. Only one school district, Provincetown, is listed as eligible.
Currently, the Monomoy District's lunch program is “cost neutral,” Carpenter said, although the program at the high school, where ala cart menu items are available, tends to make more money and help support the programs at the district's other schools.
Isernio said she's still gathering data on the program and expects a decision on whether to apply within the next few weeks. The district must notify the department of elementary and secondary education of its intention by June 30.