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More schools in Hillsborough and Pinellas qualify for free food all year; Manatee raising lunch prices

lunch line at school
Posted at 6:31 AM, Aug 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-01 08:13:23-04

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla.  — Hillsborough County Schools announced on Wednesday that 174 of its schools meet the criteria for a federal reimbursement program that gives all students free breakfast and lunch all year.

The program is called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). It offers meals at no cost to all students at any school where 40% or more of students are eligible to get free and reduced lunch due to their family’s economic circumstances.

“It is a program that allows schools that have a high percentage of kids who are enrolled in other public programs such as food stamps, TANF, those types of programs, if there is a high percentage of kids enrolled in that school, then it allows us to feed free breakfast and lunch to all kids at that school," Shani Hall, General Manager of Student Nutrition Services for Hillsborough County Schools.

Before adopting the program, the district said 66% of its students got free and reduced lunch through a federal application process. Under the new program, that increases to 84% of Hillsborough students.

Find a full list of CEP and non-CEP schools in Hillsborough below.

Hillsborough Schools CEP and Non-CEP List by ABC Action News on Scribd

“Our Student Nutrition Services staff members work hard to ensure students have access to nutritious meals to fuel their day. This program will help thousands of families who are food insecure while also decreasing paperwork and red tape for parents, schools, and our nutrition staff,” said Hall.

For the past two years, school districts have been able to give kids free meals thanks to waivers from the USDA because of the pandemic.

“We were hoping that those waivers would extend another year because of the financial strain everybody is under,” said Hall.

Those weavers were not renewed by congress for this upcoming school year

“We listened to families who were worried about losing free lunches as part of the USDA reimbursement program during the pandemic. Our district wants to take the burden off parents by making it easier for students to gain access to healthy meals at school. While we celebrate the convenience, research also shows schools accessing this program report an increase in standardized test scores, attendance improvement, and various mental health benefits,” said Superintendent Addison Davis.

Throughout the pandemic, families relied on the free meals districts were able to provide.

“Since that time, while we’ve been able to provide free meals for all students, we fed more kids than before the pandemic. So we know that families have come to rely on school meals. We don’t want to stop that for anybody who is eligible,” said Hall.

That’s why officials are stressing that families check online to see if their child is enrolled in a CEP school.

“If your student is enrolled in a CEP school, you don’t have to do anything at all,” said Hall.

If not, parents can check to see if their children are eligible for other benefits.

“Apply for free and reduced lunch. And you want to include all the students, even if they’re involved in a CEP school, on the same application to see if you can get benefits for the child," said Hall.

If a child doesn’t qualify, they’ll have to pay $2.25 for elementary school lunch and $2.75 for middle or high school lunch in Hillsborough County.

“We did not raise our prices, and for all schools, CEP or non-CEP, breakfast is free to all students,” said Hall.

The same goes for Pinellas County. They’re offering free breakfast to all students. Lunch prices also stayed the same. It’s $2.25 for elementary school lunch and $2.75 for middle or high school lunch.

The Pinellas County School District said it added 11 schools to its CEP Program, for a total of 93 schools that now have free breakfast and lunch.

In Manatee County, schools will also provide free breakfast to all students. The district has 25 schools that are part of the CEP Program.

There will be a 25-cent price increase for lunch in Manatee. It’ll be $2.75 for elementary school and $3.00 for middle and high school.

In Polk County, all schools in the district continue to be part of the CEP Program providing free meals to every student countywide.