McLean County Public Schools will now offer free lunch and breakfast to all students enrolled in the district’s three elementary schools and middle school, according to Melody Chelstrom, food service director for McLean County Schools.

The free meals are part of a federal program called ‘Community Eligibility Program’ from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. According to the program’s website, CEP allows schools and districts located in low-income areas to serve breakfast and lunch at no charge without having families go through the income application for free or reduced meals.

Chelstrom said eligibility in the program is based on the percentage of enrolled students already eligible for free or reduced meals.

“It’s based on the number of kids that are directly certified to your total enrollment at your school. So we have more kids that are directly certified at the elementary and the middle school compared to the total enrollment,” she said.

The district is enrolled in the program as a particle district, meaning only the district’s three elementary schools and middle school will be enrolled in the program to serve free meals to students. An announcement from MCPS stated that the district hopes to include the high school in the program in the future.

The school district will receive federal reimbursement for meals served to students already qualifying for free or reduced meals, Chelstrom said. For students not already qualifying, the district will receive only partial reimbursement and is required to cover the remaining amount.

Chelstrom said the program will not only reduce paperwork for meal service staff, freeing more time to focus on preparation of nutritious meals, but it will also increase student participation in the meals service, eliminate the household application process for free or reduced meals, as well as eliminating the stigma associated with free or reduced meal status for students.

“It eliminates the stigma that is associated with free and reduced status,” she said “... a lot of times if they (students) know they’re going to be free, they won’t even come through the line because they don’t want other children to know that status.”

The biggest improvement with the program, Chelstrom said, is that it will ensure all students are receiving a nutritious meal every day and not going to class hungry.

“CEP is going to lift the financial burden for parents in our school district that can’t afford to pay for one child or even multiple children that have breakfast and lunch daily. And by us offering to every child in the three elementary sites those two free meals every day, children … are going to be ready to learn. They’re going to come to class well-nourished and ready to learn,” she said.

Christie Netherton, cnetherton@mcleannews.com, 270-691-7360

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