SOUTHERN INDIANA — For Holly Rupprecht, Clarksville Community Schools' free meal programs have been a major help to her family over the past year.

Rupprecht, who works as assistant to the Clarksville superintendent, has two sons — one in middle school and the other in high school at Renaissance Academy — who are both "big eaters." Last school year, she saved about $900 in lunch expenses because of the school district's meal program.

"It takes the worry off of parents by knowing their kids are getting quality meals for free," she said.

Over the past few years, school districts in Clark and Floyd counties have seen significant growth in the number of free meals offered to students, including schools who are using a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to provide free meals to an entire student body. Qualifying schools in low-income areas can provide free breakfast and lunch to all students through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's CEP program, while other schools require applications for eligible students to receive free and reduced-price meals.

GROWTH IN PARTICIPATION

Clarksville Community Schools introduced the CEP program for all schools in the district at the beginning of last school year, and there has been considerable growth in participation, particularly at the middle school and secondary school levels, according to food services director Melissa Pixley. She said the middle school, high school and Renaissance Academy have likely seen a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in participation in breakfast and lunch since the program started.

Pixley said the overall participation in lunch was about 68 percent before the switch to the CEP, and it is now about 83 percent. Participation in breakfasts at the secondary level was about 28 percent to 30 percent before, and it is now somewhere around 40 percent to 60 percent depending on the school. The district previously had about 72 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

Greater Clark County Schools has 10 schools participating in the CEP program, and this school year, the district added River Valley Middle School and Pleasant Ridge Elementary School. These schools offer free meals to all students under the program, while others provide free and reduced-price meal options to eligible families.

Natalie Turner, food services director for Greater Clark County Schools, said 58 percent of students outside the CEP school receive free or reduced-price meals. Last school year, the district saw an increase of about 7 percent from the 2017-2018 school year, and she expects to see another 3 percent to 5 percent increase after expanding the CEP program to the two additional schools.

Turner said the district serves breakfast to about 85 percent to 90 percent of the student population for CEP schools, while it is typically 25 percent to 30 percent district-wide. For lunch, the district typically sees 50 percent to 55 percent high school participation and 65 percent to 70 percent middle school participation for non-CEP schools, while CEP schools see 90 to 95 percent participation.

In the New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation, S. Ellen Jones Elementary, Green Valley Elementary and Fairmont Elementary are the only schools that offer free meals for the entire student body under the CEP program. Pam Casey, director of food services for NAFCS, said about 41.5 percent of students currently receive free or reduced-price meals in the school district — 36.6 percent of the eligible students receive free meals, while the other 5.8 percent receive meals for lower prices.

She said the CEP program has increased meal participation, and more than two-thirds of the students participate in the meals at those three elementary schools. Before the CEP program, S. Ellen Jones had a similar free meal program under the USDA's Provision 2, according to Casey.

West Clark Community Schools has a lower population of students receiving free or reduced-price meals at about 25 percent, and the percentages have remained steady over the past few years, according to food service director Joshua Sinclair. Of 4,600 students in the district, 1,154 receive free meals, and the district does not have any CEP programs at its schools.

INCREASING ACCESS

Pixley said one of the benefits of the CEP program is how it helps Clarksville families who were "on the edge" of eligibility for free meals. It also saves them money out of pocket, and it might make it easier for families to spend that money on activities such as sports.

"Children are now able to receive benefits without families having to fill out an application, and they are not having to do anything other than send their kids to school," she said.

Rupprecht said since her family has two incomes, they were not eligible for the free and reduced-price meals before the CEP was introduced at Clarksville Community Schools. Now, the program helps the family to spend more money on items such as new shoes, clothing and book bags for their kids. She said her sons enjoy the meal options for breakfast and lunch at their schools, and she is happy that they have access to "well-rounded" options.

Pixley said with the increase in participation due to free meals, Clarksville Community Schools haven't had to make any major changes to its food services. One of the district's goals is to increase participation in the free meals. Buses now drop off students in front of the cafeteria so that it is one of the first things they see in the morning, and they get to "smell all the good food cooking."

Turner said the increase in students receiving free meals through CEP has gone smoothly in Greater Clark. The district has made some changes in its breakfast services to serve more kids in a short amount of time, including adding grab-and-go breakfast carts in the hallways for students who might have missed the early breakfast in the cafeteria.

She said Clark County families are grateful for the benefit provided by the CEP program, and although she wishes it could be extended to all schools in the Greater Clark district, they are not currently eligible for the program.

Although the school district provides higher staffing for schools with higher numbers of students eating breakfast and lunch, the meal programs are essentially the same throughout NAFC buildings, according to Casey. The CEP program means that families know their kids will receive nutritious meals at school, she said.

"It helps them to know that their kids ate, and they are not having to bring sack lunches," she said.

Sinclair said he is considering a variety of ways to drive participation and expand access to meals in West Clark, including breakfast carts that could stop by classrooms. He also hopes to provide students with after school snacks and to add a summer program to provide free or reduced-price meals to low income students.

"It is important that we provide this [free/reduced price meal] service to the community, and I want to continue to do more outreach programs," he said.

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