During the month of March, at the Lake Health District’s Community Health Improvement Partnership (CHIP) meeting a program that would change the way families think about school lunches was discussed. Many parents and guardians are familiar with the sting of school lunch bills that keep on coming. As soon as one is paid off, the next is on its way. Luckily, last fall, LHD grant writer Kristi Albertson noticed an article titled School-Wide Free Nutrition Program Attracts Fewer Rural Schools.
FoodCorps service member Brooke Kelleher comments, “Kristi sends me nutrition articles pretty regularly, not sure if it relates to the work I’m doing in the schools or not. But with this article, with finding out about CEP, yeah I’d say we hit the jackpot.”
The jackpot that Kelleher refers to is the Community Eligibility Provisions (CEP), a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funded program that provides free breakfast and lunch for eligible schools and school districts.
If at least 40 percent of the students in a given school are eligible for free or reduced priced meals, then the entire school is a candidate for CEP, which would provide all students with free meals. During her initial research, Kelleher found that two schools in Lake County School District #7 appeared eligible, and that North Lake School has been eligible for years.
“One thing about being in a smaller community is that people tend to wear multiple hats, and we have fewer people with more specialized jobs. We have people who focus on health very broadly, but not as many people with a narrow focus. This is why rural communities don’t know about programs like CEP. It hasn’t been anyone’s job to focus really specifically on food access. It’s just so lucky we came across it because this could now affect almost every family in the county,” says Kelleher.
Fast-forward seven months, and Kelleher is right that CEP can affect close to every family in the county.
Arvinder Singh, CHIP coordinator for Lake Health District, also dove into the project when he and Kelleher noticed the percentages reported by the school district and by the state were different. According to Singh, original findings showed only two schools in District #7 eligible, but thanks to their deeper research, they can now show that all the entire Lake County School District #7 is eligible for CEP. Singh also explained that to be eligible for CEP, schools must be participating the National School Lunch Program. Unfortunately, this means that Plush, Adel and Paisley schools are not eligible. New AmeriCorps VISTA member Rachell Berry has been looking into this program more recently to help tie up loose ends. She and Singh brought the information they found to the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to find out more.
“I contacted the ODE to find out about a time extension, which we received. It’s nice to know we’re taking advantage of something that rural counties often overlook because they don’t have the resources to pursue it,” says Berry.
The original opt in for CEP was in early April, but this trio helped push for an extension so that free meals can be a reality in the 2019-2020 school year. For the schools to opt in, they need to elect to participate in CEP through an application process. The only thing left to do is have representation from the school district reach out to the ODE nutrition services to get the ball rolling.
“This is huge,” says Kelleher. “This is money that will go back into our school nutrition program to bring fresher, healthier, yummier food to the school lunch line. This is money that families get to keep in their pockets to put better foods on their tables at home. These growing kiddos I see at school deserve food that helps them be their best selves, and I couldn’t be happier to help see this through.”
It all started by happening upon an article, which makes you wonder what other resources are out there that have potential to make big changes for our small town.
For more information, contact Lake Health District and Singh at 541-947-2114 ext. 198.