BROOKSVILLE — Every student in Hernando County will have access to free breakfast and lunch at school through 2022, thanks to an unlikely helper: Hurricane Irma.
The federal Community Eligibility Provision program, which offers meal assistance for schools in low-income areas, covered only 17 of the county's 25 schools last year. But because Hernando was deemed a "disaster area" after the September 2017 storm, all schools qualify for the next four years, regardless of students' individual economic needs.
Lori Drenth, director of food and nutrition services for the school district, explained how.
After Irma, households in Hernando qualified for Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or D-SNAP, a short-term food assistance program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she said.
Those enrollment numbers led to a spike in the school district's percentage of students who qualify for free meals, from about 54 percent in 2016-17 to about 62 percent this past year. The "artificially high" count, Drenth told the School Board during a workshop last week, made it viable to eliminate the district's processing of applications for free and reduced lunch, and include the entire district on the federally funded plan.
Drenth said she hopes the change helps families strapped for cash or those with more than one school-age child.
"With multiple students in a household, it can add up quickly," she said.
At elementary schools, breakfast costs $1 and lunch costs $2. That means, without assistance, it would cost $540 a year for a student to eat both meals at school every day of school year, she said.
In middle and high schools, breakfast costs $1.25 and lunch costs $2.50, so those students would spend nearly $700 annually.
Although her daughter got free lunch at Winding Waters K8 this past school year, Caitlin Shaw Ferland remembers the financial burden of school lunches. Her daughter had to pay as a kindergartner at Challenger, she said.
"As a single parent, having to pay even $3 a day is a lot of money," said Ferland, 32. "It's not like I couldn't afford it, and it's cheaper than packing, but it's still a burden."
As head of food services in Hernando schools since 2004, Drenth said securing free meals for all students is a goal she's long had. It happens that Irma did the trick.
"I remember back in the day, saying that I would love to feed all kids for free," she said. "And voilà, here we are."
e_SDLqContact Megan Reeves at email@example.com. Follow @mareevs.