Hunger-Free Schools Act may affect parts of county

(June 12, 2015) Signed into law and taking effect June 1, the Hunger-Free Schools Act of 2015 eliminates the need for an application to receive a free or reduced meal at local schools by instead providing breakfast and lunch to the entire student body at no charge.

To qualify, schools must have at least 40 percent of its student body classified as low income.

Proponents of the bill said it removes the stigma of the application process and will increase participation in the program.

In Worcester County, officials are still evaluating the impact the program could have because participation within the county is a function of where students live. Countywide, the board of education has found that 43.6 percent of Worcester students are eligible for a meal program.

“We know that our school system does not qualify as a whole,” Scott Blackburn, food service coordinator for the schools. “Therefore, we are looking at school clusters — such as Pocomoke area schools — and individual schools to determine if a recommendation should be made to the board of education in terms of participation.”

Upwards of 70 percent of Pocomoke Elementary School students are on the free and reduced meal (FARM) program, exactly 65 percent of Pocomoke Middle students are eligible and almost 60 percent of Pocomoke High students qualify, according to the school board.

The greatest number, by percentage, of students eligible for the FARM program in Worcester County are those who attend Cedar Chapel Special School — almost 72 percent. The lowest percentage in the Worcester public schools is Stephen Decatur High, with 29.2 percent eligibility. The Snow Hill schools and Buckingham Elementary would also qualify based on 2014-2015 numbers.

“Worcester County Public Schools is currently studying the Community Eligibility provision included in the Hunger-Free Schools Act, by evaluating its benefit to our students, calculating its impact on federal reimbursements for free and reduced meals, and anticipating its effect on our food service operation,” said Barbara Witherow, school system spokesperson.

Instead of depending on applications, the Community Eligibility provision uses a formula based on numbers of prequalified children based on factors like homelessness, involvement with foster care or their families’ SNAP benefit eligibility, among other factors to determine acceptance into the program.

“The purpose of Community Eligibility,” Blackburn said, “is to increase the meals provided to students in schools with high levels of poverty while decreasing the burden of intensive paperwork required in the FARMS application process.”

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