BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School Board has moved ahead with a federally funded plan to provide free meals for most the county's elementary and middle school students, regardless of need, starting next school year.
Adoption of the program, called the Community Eligibility Provision, is expected to increase the Hernando County School District's federal reimbursement for food service from $6.1 million to $8.3 million annually, said Lori Drenth, director of food and nutrition services for the district.
The program was created by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, signed into law by then-President Barack Obama.
It has since been adopted by 39 of the state's 67 school districts, Drenth said at Tuesday's School Board workshop.
The board agreed to vote on the program at an upcoming meeting.
One Florida district briefly dropped out of the program before re-enlisting, Drenth said, but "all the other school districts I've talked to have said it was one of the best decisions they have ever made."
The district likely will need to hire more food-service workers to provide the meals, she said, but that cost will be covered by increased federal revenue. The program might ultimately save the district money by reducing the cost of analyzing eligibility of applicants for the current subsidized meal programs.
About 66 percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts.
The program targets high-poverty districts and would provide free breakfasts and lunches at all elementary schools except Chocachatti Elementary. It would cover all middle and K-8 schools other than Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics and the district's three charter schools.
It would not cover the district's five high schools, which generally have lower rates of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. But it would cover the Endeavor and Discovery academies, alternative programs that serve students with, respectively, behavioral or academic problems.
Board member Susan Duval said she was concerned that parents with students at different schools might complain that "this one gets it and this one doesn't."
But Drenth said that adding schools with fewer children from poor families — including the Chocachatti and Challenger magnet schools — would reduce the percentage of students districtwide who receive the full reimbursement of $3.09 per meal.
Also, she said, the current programs for subsidized meals would remain at schools not covered by the new program.
Adoption of the measure would guarantee that Hernando receives the funds for four years, she said, barring radical changes in child nutrition policies at the federal level. That seems unlikely because "you have a lot of households it would impact, I mean millions and millions across the nation, and I think you would hear an outcry like no other," she said.
"Even Republicans — and I say that only because they're the ones making the rules at this point — would be hard-pressed to make that change."
Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.