The most important meal

Free school breakfasts and lunches coming to Paris 95 elementary, middle schoolers

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All elementary and middle school students in Paris Union School District 95 can eat a free school breakfast and lunch next school year following action by the Paris 95 board of education Monday, May 13.

By making the commitment, families who previously had to pay for lunch will save $484 per year per child. “That doesn’t even include if they participate in the breakfast program,” according to Paris 95 Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Larson.

The school district will be participating in a one-year pilot program of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP provides and opportunity for schools in high poverty areas to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without the burden of collecting and processing applications for free and reduced meals. CEP was a key provision of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Larson said for the past few years, the district has studied whether CEP participation would hurt the district financially. “No one makes money on a lunch program. You’re not supposed to,” Larson emphasized.

After filling out the necessary paperwork, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) recommended the district stay with the traditional claims for free and reduced lunches.

“When we looked at the numbers this year we weren’t that far off, so we decide to commit to one year,” Larson explained. For Paris 95, the key to coming close to breaking even will be increasing participation, Larson said.

There will be absolutely no increase in local property taxes, Larson said. Rather than taking school meal applications to determine individual eligibility determinations, participating schools are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students participating in the other need-based programs.

Larson acknowledged the Paris district has a 67 percent poverty rate. “There are families that have both parents working but they can’t quite make the cut for reduced or free meals,” Larson said. “This program will definitely help them.”

The superintendent said he has been personally overwhelmed with the positive response from the Paris community with the board’s decision. “People in this community are concerned about children going hungry,” Larson said. “Their enthusiasm for this decision has been amazing.”

Besides making it possible for every child – preschool through eighth grade – to eat meals free, CEP also eases the administrative burden to the district. CEP allows eligible schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge, without collecting school meal applications or monitoring eligibility when serving meals.

One of the important by-products of the district’s participation will be eliminating the stigma for students who participate in the school lunch program. Because all students eat at no charge, children are no longer identified as low-income in the lunch line. No child at a CEP school will ever receive an alternate meal, or be denied a meal, due to a negative account balance, according to information provided by ISBE.

Larson said he expects more children to take advantage of the free breakfast program. “We’ll be working on improving our numbers which will help make this program work for Paris 95,” he said.

The district has made several changes in school meals in recent years said Larson, who also serves as the district’s food director. Many of the changes came about because of input from students and survey groups.

A survey completed by middle school students allowed Larson to seek a waiver forcing the district to serve whole-wheat hamburger buns, hot dog buns, breakfast pastries and whole-wheat spaghetti. “Kids are picky eaters,” he said. “Now we have white hamburger and hot dog buns.”

Wenz and Mayo have also each added a slushy machine, filled with 100 percent fruit juice, he said. “I walked through the cafeteria at Mayo the other day and the kids were eating pizza burgers,” Larson said. “They were happy. We know they are eating.”

Larson explained the CEP program is not at Paris High School because it is a cooperative high school between Paris 95 and Crestwood. Schools who participate must have a minimum poverty level of at least 40 percent.

Paris 95 joins Shiloh Community District 1 and Chrisman Community Unit 6 as participants in the plan.