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August 6, 2014 10:29:54 AM
All of the estimated 4,600 children in the Columbus Municipal School District will now receive a free breakfast and lunch each school day.
Superintendent Philip Hickman announced this morning that the district has entered into the Community Eligibility Option, a program that is part of the federal Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 and available in Mississippi schools for the first time this year.
Other districts, including Hattiesburg and Natchez/Adams County, have also enrolled in the program.
"When you really think about education, a lot of times kids come to school and they're focusing on a hungry stomach or a meal that they lost. They don't have the appropriate nutrients to be able to focus or engage within the school in their curriculum and activities," Hickman said. "This is one way to be able to keep our kids healthy and to be able to keep them engaged."
By providing a free breakfast and lunch for each child, each student has an opportunity to succeed, Hickman said.
"What it does obviously, is it provided equality for all our students," he said. "To be able to come to school and have a nutritious breakfast and to be able to focus and then to be able to kick-start their afternoon with a nutritious lunch and once again to be able to even the playing field, enables our kids to be college and career ready."
Unlike with the free and reduced lunch program the district has implemented in the past, the Community Eligibility Option is automatic and doesn't require a form signed by the parent or proof of income. Currently, up to 95 percent of students in the district qualified for free or reduced lunch.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, which operates the program, school districts will be reimbursed by the federal government based on a formula that multiplies the percentage of free/reduced lunch eligible students by 1.6. Given the CMSD's high percentage of eligible students, federal funding will mean Columbus schools will save roughly $100,000 over the school year, Hickman said.
"No one has to fill out a form at all," Hickman said. "This is cost savings for a family. Whether they're low income or not, it's a cost savings."
Students will eat breakfast as soon as they arrive to school. Hickman said it is important for parents to ensure their children arrive to school on time so they receive a nutritious breakfast and don't miss early morning studies.
"We're asking the parents to bring your child to school on time and then we'll handle the rest and be able to get them engaged in a learning environment," he said.
Hickman views the program as another way to educate the whole child.
"With education, you have to make sure a child is ready and their brain is developing appropriately," he said. "One of those things is nutrition."
The program will begin Thursday, the first day of classes for the city schools.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.