County leaders say free school meals provide more than food for McDowell
Lindsey Akers and her two children live in McDowell County.
August 31, 2012 ·
The majority of children in West Virginia were greeted with free breakfast and lunch as they returned to school. A federal program is expected to help all children in a targeted, economically depressed area.
West Virginia is one of only four states selected to participate in US Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Option program or CEO program. It’s federally funded, and offers free breakfast and lunch to students.
Lindsey Akers sends two kids to school in McDowell County every morning.
"It really makes my life easier because I don’t have to worry about getting them up earlier," Akers said. "That’s more time that they can rest and I feel if they have time to rest than they do better in school. So that takes some stress out of my mornings."
Akers says her family does not qualify for free or reduced meals, but she’s thankful to have the help.
"There’s always things that come up with the children," she said. "I have one playing golf right now and one playing football so those things are costly."
"When you are paying for lunch you are paying at a guess around $40 a month for each of their lunches and they both ate school lunch so I mean anybody is going to be happy saving around $80 a month and every little bit helps."
Eighty-six percent of McDowell County students are what’s known as “directly certified,” according to Patsy Payne, the Child Nutrition Supervisor for the county. This means the student, or family, already qualifies for free or reduced meals because the family receives some sort of help from the Department of Health and Human Resources, such as food stamps.
"I’m sure there are children who only eat at school," she said. "When they get home they have nothing to eat so being able to provide this and provide this free of charge to these families has helped them immensely I’m sure."
Payne says she expects the program to help families who would have qualified for reduced meals the most.
"The reduced seem to be the working poor," Payne said. "They are working but their wages aren’t a lot so to eliminate one bill per month."
"Sometimes they have several children in the household and the reduced rate was 30 cents for breakfast and forty cents for lunch so that’s 70 cents a day per child and that tends to add up when you have not a very big income."
Last year McDowell County participated in a federally funded program called Universal Free. Payne says the CEO program has fewer administrative requirements and more generous reimbursements rates, so she expects it to be more effective than the Universal Free program in the long run.
"We expect to get more dollars in reimbursement to help cover costs of the meals as opposed to Universal Free," she explained, "because based on the school’s percentage of directly certified we will get a free reimbursement for that percentage and the remainder will be paid at a paid reimbursement rate but we expect that to be greater than the previous year so hopefully we’ll generate a little more money for the county."
Traditionally, when families qualify for free or reduced meals, counties are reimbursed mostly by the federal government after books of paperwork are completed. Payne says the CEO program almost eliminates the paperwork and as one of the smallest counties in the state, every little bit helps.
"Being a small county that we are we don’t have a lot of county funds for the Board of Education," she said. "When we have to supplement to provide all of these meals it’s a hardship."
Thirty-five counties in West Virginia chose to participate in the CEO program. Within those counties, individual schools must have at least 40 percent of enrolled children directly certified. If the county met the criteria, there was no paperwork for parents or counties.
"I think it has a huge impact," she said. "First of all and I’m passionate about the fact that hungry children can’t learn. In order for them to learn they need to eat and eat nutritious meals and that’s what we try to provide here in the county."
"Now every student and the majority of the schools that every student take a tray and eat it’s not costing your family anything let’s see what we can do."
McDowell is one of 11 counties in the state that are implementing CEO countywide. The others are Calhoun, Clay, Lincoln, Logan, Mercer, Mingo, Summers, Webster, Wirt & Wyoming.
Lindsey Akers has also worked as a substitute teacher in the county, so she’s seen first-hand what school meals mean to these kids.
"I recall a situation where we had a lot of snow days," Akers said, "and the superintendent got a phone call from a parent that said, 'when are you going to send the kids back to school.' He said, 'I don’t know we’re trying to wait for the roads to clear,' and the parent said that they needed to hurry and get school back in session because he couldn’t afford to feed all of his kids at home."
The McDowell County school system was taken over by the state more than 10 years ago because of poor performance. But Akers sees this as one less thing for parents to worry about as she and other residents refuse to give up on their children and community.
"I am very proud to be a resident of McDowell County," she said. "I’m glad that we’re getting the attention although it’s negative but I do think that there are good things coming for McDowell County and I do think that we have wonderful people in our area."