WELLSBURG - When pupils at Hooverson Heights and Jefferson primary schools and Wellsburg Middle School return to school Monday, they may receive free breakfasts and lunches, thanks to a federal program.
The three schools join Beech Bottom, which entered the Community Eligibility Option program in 2012, and Colliers and Wellsburg primary schools, which joined it last year.
"A lot of parents want to know what the deal is. They are looking for a catch," said Tom Davidson, child nutrition director for Brooke County Schools.
He noted all pupils at the schools may receive the free meals, regardless of their families' incomes.
Established through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the program provides eligible schools with federal funds for breakfasts and lunches for all students for three years. Participation by school districts is voluntary.
Davidson said 40 percent of pupils at a school must qualify for food stamps or other government aid in order to participate. He said federal officials notify school districts if they are eligible and he doesn't know which pupils or how many qualify for aid.
Davidson said he knows the number of children who receive free or reduced price lunches and breakfasts. But some parents feel embarrassed about applying for the reduced prices and being eligible for them doesn't necessarily mean families are eligible for federal assistance, he said.
Davidson said the CEO program, since renamed the Community Eligibility Provision program, aims to provide meals to families that are on the border of being eligible for federal assistance.
Families with three children and a yearly income of $25,727 currently qualify for free lunches and breakfasts. Those with two children and a yearly income of $20,449 and those with one child and a yearly income of $15,171, also are among those that qualify.
There is a separate scale for those who qualify for meals at reduced prices.
Davidson said one reason Wellsburg Middle qualifies is that pupils who qualified at primary schools have moved on to the middle school. He said that also may occur in the future at Follansbee Middle and Brooke High School, two schools that don't currently qualify. Franklin Primary in Wellsburg and Lauretta B. Millsop Primary in Weirton also don't qualify at this time.
Davidson said the federal program doesn't require a certain number of children consume the free meals, but participation is key to its success, as the program pays for the meals consumed, he said.
Bagged lunches still are an option, of course, but the number of children at schools already participating in the federal program has been high enough to keep the meals from being provided at a loss, Davidson said.
An increase in unemployment and low-income households in recent years has lead many Brooke County schools to implement after-school programs, where students receive free dinners, or backpack programs, with local churches and others filling backpacks with food for pupils in need to take home with them.
The addition of three schools to the federal program comes at the same time that prices for lunches and breakfasts are being raised by 10 cents at the nonparticipating schools - Franklin and Millsop primaries, Follansbee Middle and the high school.
Davidson said the price hike is the result of inflation, the rising costs of food and fuel used to deliver it, and has nothing to do with the schools in the federal program.
"I didn't raise the prices to support the schools in the program," he said.
Davidson said despite the increase, the cost for school meals, such as $1.50 for a lunch at the high school, is less than one would pay elsewhere. But he added parents may apply for reduced price or free meals at any time during the school year, allowing those experiencing an unexpected layoff or other hardship to get help. Those with questions about eligibility may call him at (304) 737-2100.
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