Free-meal program could expand to all K-6 Lincoln students

STANFORD — Every Lincoln County student from preschool through sixth grade could be eating breakfast and lunch for free next year if the board of education approves a plan to expand a federal free-meals program.

The district can provide the free meals but pay little or nothing out of its own funds if it takes advantage of a federal program called the Community Eligibility Option, said Ronnie Deatherage, chief deputy of quality support.

The district began using the program on a trial basis at Fort Logan and three elementary schools — Waynesburg, Crab Orchard and Stanford — this year.

Deatherage said the program has been successful at the schools it was implemented in and hasn't cost the district any money.

Because the number of students in the district who qualify for federal free lunches has gone up, the district can afford to expand the program to the rest of the elementary schools and the Lloyd McGuffey Sixth-Grade Center, Deatherage said.

The CEO program works by reimbursing schools for the cost of providing free meals to "direct certified" students, who are low-income and already qualify for free lunches. The program then also pays the district an additional 60 percent of that cost.

But in order to participate and receive the extra money, each participating school must promise to provide free meals to all of its students. If a school wants to break even by paying for all student meals with the extra CEO funding, it has to have at least 63 percent of its students be direct certified.

This year, the percentages of direct certified students at Highland, Hustonville and McKinney elementary schools were not high enough to allow them to participate in the CEO program for free.

But for the coming school year, direct certified percentages have risen high enough that the district could provide the CEO program for free in all elementary schools and Fort Logan High School and Preschool, Deatherage said.

The district could also provide free meals for students at Lloyd McGuffey, though that could cost a small amount of money.

Deatherage estimated it could cost the district as much as $2,800 per month if it includes the sixth-grade center in the CEO program, but that cost might not even show up if direct certified students are good about eating their meals.

"In the end, I don't think it's going to cost us hardly anything," Deatherage said Tuesday. "It could cost us that much if kids don't participate like we want them to."

The costs the district would have to bear in order to bring the CEO program to the middle school or high school are prohibitively high, Deatherage said.

If the board takes action to expand the CEO program to all elementary schools and Lloyd McGuffey, an estimated 2,284 students — more than half in the district — would be eating their meals for free next year thanks to the CEO program, Deatherage said.

The next regular meeting of the Lincoln County Board of Education is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. May 9.