Two school years ago, Ferris ISD students who did not qualify for reduced lunches paid over $340 a year on school meals, while students on the reduced program spent about $64 annually.
Those figures could seem lower than what students in other districts pay, as Ferris ISD has served free breakfast since 2008. That initial decision was made to assist the over 80 percent of the student population that qualifies annually for free or reduced lunches.
This past school year, however, those lunchroom numbers decreased even more — all the way down to zero. Thanks to the Community Eligibility Provision, every student within Ferris ISD received free lunches.
CEP is a non-pricing meal service option for schools in low-income areas. This federal program allows the nation's highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no costs to all enrolled students without having to collect household applications.
Galyia Clark has served as the Ferris ISD Director of Food Services for the past 15 years after working in food services at Red Oak ISD for 15.
Clark recently sat down and reviewed the impact CEP has made on students and the budget. The results were both pleasing and exciting.
Through CEP, the burden of collecting household applications to determine eligibility was eliminated, therefore, removing an aspect of "meal shaming" on students and families.
"This year at Ingram and McDonald, 100 [percent] of our kids qualified [for free and reeducated lunches]," Clark explained. "So with that count qualifying and at the intermediate was like a 96, when you combine all of those, we could give it to everybody."
Another factor that pushed FISD to register in CEP was the fact that its qualifications included families who utilize Medicaid.
Each year, FISD budgets $1,000 to pay for unpaid meals at the end of the school year. In 2017-18, FISD paid $400 in outstanding meals, which was relatively small.
In years past, students were allotted three free meals before having to eat the alternative meal, which at FISD included a serving of fruits and vegetables with milk.
Through CEP, students are always provided a fuller plate with protein and bread. They are also not denied a complete balanced meal, which could be seen as eliminating "meal shaming" on students.
Clark said the program allowed more students to eat school lunches and also noted that, since the district did not have to plan for potentially unpaid lunches, CEP positively impacted the budget.
"I get to buy new steamers," Clark explained. "We are waiting for our school board to approve it, but TDA has already — $33,000 in new steamers. It's going to make a huge difference in what we can do."
With Ferris ISD consisting of five campuses with approximately 2,707 students, the district is feeding more children than the population of the town. According to the United States Census Bureau, the City of Ferris had 2,622 residents in 2017.
McDonald Elementary principal Chris Hawkins thanked the nutrition department for applying and administering CEP.
"For us, it provides peace of mind that our students have guaranteed access to two hot meals a day regardless of any other factor," Hawkins said. "There are many parts of a student's life we cannot control, but removing the uncertainty at meal time frees up students' minds to learn, and this has not always been possible."
Ferris Intermediate School principal Bobbi Cook noted there has not been one tear shed over not having lunch money or empty stomachs for only getting a veggie tray and peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
"Last year, we were calling parents left and right and paying for meals ourselves," Cook elaborated. "It has also helped me as a parent. We were paying full price, and it got to be rather pricey. We've been able to move that money elsewhere to support our family."
Data collected by the Texas Department of Agriculture reported that out of the 10 Ellis County public school districts, only Milford and Avalon ISDs have all campuses eligible for the program in addition to Ferris.
Granted, both districts technically consists of one campus.
Milford ISD superintendent Vernon Orndorff said the district hired its first director of child nutrition and is looking into enrolling in CEP.
Milford ISD has 273 students enrolled and has an economic disadvantage rate of 71.8 percent — the second highest in Ellis County.
Meanwhile, Avalon ISD consists of 399 students enrolled with a 54.9 percent economic disadvantage rate.
In Ennis ISD, 10 out of 11 campuses qualify, while seven of the 15 campuses in Waxahachie ISD and one campus in Palmer ISD qualify.
For a campus to qualify, it requires at least 40 percent of students to be eligible for free and reduced lunches.
Take Palmer ISD for example: The elementary campus is the only one that qualifies, coming in just above the minimum at 45.66 percent.
"Because of the numbers, we would not get reimbursed for all meals served," Palmer ISD superintendent Kevin Noack explained. "Believe me, if we could make it work we would. It is a great program. Financially, we cannot afford the program at this time."
According to Eater.com, "9.7 million students ate free school meals through the provision, but only about 55 percent of schools that qualified to receive it participated" during the 2016-2017 school year
The Daily Nonpareil reports families in elementary schools could save up to $700 a year, with families of high school students saving up to $900 a year.
Those who qualify are identified students who are directly certified through data-matching because their households receive SNAP, TANF, or FDPIR, and in some states, Medicaid benefits, as well as children who are approved for free meals without an application because they are homeless, migrant, enrolled in Head Start, or in foster care.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Congress authorized the program as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. CEP was phased out over three years starting with D.C., Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Massachusetts. CEP has been available nationwide since July 1, 2014.
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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450