A new federal program will give hundreds more students in the Beaufort County School District free lunch and breakfast.
The Community Eligibility Provision, which begins this fall in South Carolina, provides free meals to all students in schools that serve predominantly low-income children. Many of the students who will benefit would not otherwise qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Five schools in Beaufort County will participate: St. Helena Elementary, Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary, Whale Branch Elementary, Whale Branch Middle, and Whale Branch Early College High School.
There should be no cost to the district for the program, Sodexo food services director Roberta Peterson said.
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"Having this program takes weight off parents in terms of wondering and worrying about what and how their children are going to eat," Shanklin Elementary principal Celestine LaVan said. "Because under this program, students get a breakfast and lunch every day that are free and nutritional."
All other district schools will continue to offer free and reduced-price lunches to those who qualify under the National School Lunch Program, to which parents must apply to demonstrate financial need. Through that program, the district serves free lunches to about 9,400 students and reduced-price lunches to about 1,200 students.
Now with the Community Eligibility program, about 500 more students will receive a free lunch.
LaVan said the program will be especially helpful for those families who paid for lunches before, but were barely able to and couldn't afford healthy meals.
"It is so important to make sure that every student has the opportunity for a balanced meal," she said. "Making sure they have nutritious food helps so they can stay focused during the day and have the energy they need."
The program was established in 2010 and is largely paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It uses information from other federal assistance programs to identify students who are "low-income," according to the USDA. Schools in which more than 40 percent of students are determined to be low-income are eligible.
South Carolina has more than 500 schools that qualify for the program, and the Beaufort County district has 13. However, because the district would have to bear some of the costs if all eligible schools participated, it has selected only the five schools in northern Beaufort County, according to chief operational services officer Phyllis White.
For every student identified as low-income, a school receives a reimbursement that covers about one-and-a-half meals. Any remaining expenses to provide the free meals to students in the schools who are not low-income must be covered by the local district.
Beaufort County would have to pay about $280,000 annually to provide free meals to all students in the 13 schools, White said. So the district limited its participation to schools where about 65 percent or more of the student body is low-income.
The district can decide to add more schools in future years, Peterson said.
"We want as many kids to eat free as possible, so we did consider how we can maximize the number of schools," White said. "But then the practical side of us said, 'Let's see how these five do and feel comfortable that we will have success before we start moving ahead with others.' "
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah