A federal program available in New Jersey for 2014-15 would provide free breakfast and lunch to every student in low-income schools.

But officials at many local eligible schools said they are not sure it will be cost-efficient to participate. They are also concerned that the new program could cost them other state or federal aid, and that some families could object to a possible new requirement that all families provide income information.

The Community Eligibility Program, or CEP, a part of the National School Lunch Program, allows schools in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to every child, then get reimbursed by the federal government at a set rate. The program was included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and has been piloted in about 10 states.

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Local districts eligible or near-eligible for the program include Atlantic City, Pleasantville, Wildwood, Woodbine, Vineland, Millville, Bridgeton, Egg Harbor City, Commercial Township and the Galloway Community Charter School.

A survey of districts found few plan to apply this year. School officials said they are concerned about the cost and how the program might affect their eligibility for state aid and other federal funding that is currently determined by the number of children in the free and reduced-fee meal program. If districts are no longer going to track individual students, officials want to know how that aid will be calculated.

“When we first looked at it, I thought it was a great idea,” said Martha Jamison, business administrator in the Wildwood School District. “But when we look at the details, we could be penalized in other ways.”

Millville School Business Administrator Bryce Kell said their analysis showed the district would lose more than $100,000 a year by switching to the new program. He said the possible impact on state aid was also a concern.

“We will continue to look at it, and if we could at least break even, would consider doing it in the future,” Kell said.

School administrators in Atlantic City, Egg Harbor City and Woodbine also said they had looked into the program but would likely not apply this year because there were too many uncertainties about funding.

Administrators in Commercial Township and the Galloway Community Charter School said they did the preliminary paperwork and would like to apply, but they are hoping for more guidance from the state on the potential impact.

Nancy Parello, spokeswoman for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said they have been working with some districts and have asked acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe to issue guidance for the districts.

On June 17, Hespe sent a memo to all school superintendents saying state aid for 2014-15 would not be impacted since it had already been calculated.

The letter said the Department of Education is in the process of developing an alternative to the current Free and Reduced Price Lunch Application that will be ready in time for the October 2014 student enrollment count, and districts will be given time to collect the required information.

The deadline to apply for the program was also just extended from June 30 to Aug. 31, which could give some districts the time they need to evaluate the program’s financial impact.

Under current rules, families must apply to have their children receive the free or reduced-price meals, with eligibility based on income.

Under the CEP, eligibility is based on “identified students” or those already in the state or federal system through programs such as welfare or food stamps.

Any school or district with at least 40 percent of such “identified students” can get free meals for all students and will be reimbursed by the federal program at a rate of 1.6 times the number of identified students. So a school with 50 percent identified students would get reimbursed for 80 percent of the meals at the “free student” rate, which in 2013-14 was $2.99 for lunch and $1.58 for breakfast. The remaining 20 percent would be reimbursed at the “paid student” rate of 32 cents for lunch and 28 cents for breakfast .

At the minimum required 40 percent of “identified students,” districts would get 64 percent of their meals reimbursed at the “free” rate. But if they have more than 64 percent of students currently enrolled through income eligibility, districts could lose money switching to CEP.  

Wildwood has the highest local “identified student” rate at 61 percent and could get almost 100 percent of meals reimbursed. About 90 percent of K-8 students and 70 percent of high school students are in the free meal program now. Wildwood also gets 90 percent of eligible federal e-rate technology funding, and Jamison said her concern is that percentage could drop under the CEP program.

The program is also touted as reducing paperwork for the districts, since families will not have to fill out the meal application form. But all families may instead have to fill out another income form so the district can receive accurate state and other federal aid.

Jessie Hewins, of the Food Research and Action Center, said more than 4,000 schools in 10 other states have already piloted the program successfully. She said Kentucky and Michigan require participating schools to collect family income data for state education purposes. She said it does take some work to switch to the new system, but it removes the paperwork from the school nutrition program budget, which is a savings in that area. She said one option is to include the new income form as part of the packet of information parents complete at the beginning of the school year.

Asked whether parents might balk at being required to provide income information, she said there has not been a backlash in other states. The forms typically ask families to check off a box within a range of incomes.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

@ACPressDamico on Twitter

ELIGIBLE SCHOOL DISTRICTS

The following local school districts are either eligible, or near eligible for the Community Eligibility Program meal plan based on the percentage of children already identified because their families are on welfare, receiving food stamps, or meet other state of federal program requirements. Districts must have 40 percent of such identified students to be eligible for the program. In some additional districts, individual schools may also be eligible.

District    % identified students

Atlantic City    48

Bridgeton     66

Commercial Twp.    54

Egg Harbor City         39

Fairfield Twp.    39

Galloway Charter    63

Lower Township    32

Millville    45

Millville Charter    39

North Wildwood    37

Pleasantville    49

Upper Deerfield    36

Ventnor    35

Vineland    41

Wildwood    61

Woodbine    38

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