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More schools to offer students no-cost meals

By GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAIT gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com

Getting a child dressed, fed and ready for school in the mornings can be quite an endeavor, but many area parents will soon be relieved of at least two school-morning burdens: fixing breakfast and packing lunches.

For the 2014-2015 school year, 13 more area schools will be able to offer free breakfast and lunch to students.

Schools that are new to the program include Hendron-Lone Oak, Calvert City, Lowes, Wingo, Graves Central and North Livingston elementary schools; Fulton County elementary and middle school; South Marshall, Livingston and Ballard County middle schools, and Ballard Memorial, Fulton County and Graves County's Gateway Academy high schools.

They will join a group of about 20 other area schools that have qualified for and opted into the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that allows high-poverty schools to provide two square meals a day for all students at no cost to parents.

"I love knowing that they'll go home with two good meals in their bellies at the end of the day," said Graves County Superintendent Kim Harrison of students at her four schools now enrolled in CEP. "The only thing I regret is that we can't offer this to all schools in Graves. We'll monitor the status of the other schools as those windows open up."

Kentucky was one of three pilot states eligible for CEP starting in 2011 (along with Illinois and Michigan). According to hunger relief charity Feeding America, all three states ranked relatively high for poverty and food insecurity - Kentucky ranked fourth in the nation for poverty and 17th for household food insecurity.

"The most beneficial part of the program is that every child is given the same opportunity to have a breakfast meal and lunch meal that is of the nutritional quality that every child needs," said Leah Holland Mills, Food Services director of Mayfield Independent Schools, all of which have been enrolled in the CEP program since its inception.

"Children who are hungry no longer have to be concerned with whether there is enough money in their account for them to eat, and those who really need the free or reduced meals are no longer overtly identified as 'needy,'" she said. "Everyone eats."

According to the USDA guidelines, CEP schools must have 40 percent or more of their students "direct certified" as at-risk for food insecurity through state data.

Direct certified students include those whose households participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Cash Assistance (TANF) or Medicaid, as well as those who are in foster care, a Head Start program, or are homeless or migrant children.

Ballard County Schools Food Service Director Amber Hayes said she's seen CEP make a difference for families of every shape, size and income bracket, but it has been especially beneficial for parents living on what she calls "the bubble." Breakfast and lunch have been free for students at the Ballard County elementary and preschools for two years, but this is the first year the county's middle and high schools have qualified for CEP.

"Times are hard," she said. "With all of the issues at USEC, Honeywell, and the paper mill, good-paying jobs are hard to find. Some parents are making too much to qualify for most assistance programs, but it's still not enough."

Hayes recognized that some school districts might be apprehensive about going "mixed," with some schools offering CEP while others in the same district don't qualify to do the same. But she said it worked out just fine in Ballard County. Their breakfast participation alone has jumped from 38 percent pre-CEP to 70 percent, and Hayes hopes that number will continue to climb.

This year Ballard County Schools will introduce "grab and go" breakfast in hopes of catching kids the moment they step through the school's doors, making sure they get something hot and healthy to eat. They'll also offer "bomber bucks" every month to students who eat breakfast every day as an incentive.

Steve Ybarzabal, who is both a parent and a principal at Clark Elementary School, is thankful for what CEP has done for all of his kids in the Paducah Independent School District.

"There are a lot of families who can certainly afford to purchase breakfast and lunch for their children," he said, "but it's still one less thing they have to worry about each week. Plus, with two school children you're talking about saving $800 a year or more. I know my kids eat whatever the cafeteria is serving, and I like seeing other kids I know weren't eating before eating well, every day."

Several CEP schools near district borders (like Graves County's Lowes and Wingo elementary schools) have expressed their willingness to work with parents who live in neighboring, non-CEP districts. Interested parents are encouraged to call schools as soon as possible. For many schools, Monday will be the first of many to come complete with two hot, nutritious meals for students.

Contact Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or at gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com.

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