Jefferson County has free lunch for all students

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 25, 1999

Fifth-grader Markei Wells speeds through the lunch line these days at Jefferson County Middle School. He doesn’t have to stop to hand over money at the end of the line – he just tells a cafeteria worker his assigned number for lunch record keeping. Beginning in the 1999-2000 school year, children in the Jefferson County School District have free breakfasts and lunches courtesy of the National School Lunch Program.

Because students aren’t slowed down to pay at the end of the line, lunches are much faster and there isn’t the stigma of the reduced lunch crowd versus the paying children, said John E. Dickey, superintendent of the Jefferson County School District.

Fighting poverty

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&uot;We had 99 percent of our students on free or reduced lunches last year,&uot; Dickey said.

In Jefferson County, 46.9 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to statistics provided by the Mississippi Employment Security Commission. This is just one of many statistics which pointed the school district toward funding under National School Lunch Act, Dickey said.

By comparison, Adams County has 30.5 percent of its total population below the poverty line, and Hinds County has 21.2 percent.

Jefferson County faces other grim statistics.

With one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, Jefferson County had 13.2 percent unemployed in November while Adams County had less than half that figure – 6 percent. The state and national unemployment rate for November both stood at 3.8 percent. Jefferson Davis County was marginally higher in unemployment with a rate of 15.1 percent.

Average weekly wages in Jefferson County were $347 in 1999, while Adams County had $426 and Hinds County had $528.

Just more than half (53 percent) of Jefferson County residents graduate from high school, compared to 67.3 percent of Adams County residents and 75.2 percent of Hinds County residents. The percentage of Jefferson County residents who graduate from college is only 10.3 percent compared to

Adams County’s 14.8 percent or Hinds County’s 26.4 percent.

Getting children not only to stay in school but to perform well there has been the primary challenge facing the Jefferson County School District.

Provision 3

Jefferson County is one of 17 school districts statewide taking part in a new provision under the National School Lunch Act called Provision 3.

The new provision under the school lunch program allows school districts to provide free meals to all students in a selected school with a high percentage of low income children.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $2,167,396 in grants to school food services agencies in nine states in 1999 to implement Provision 3.

Mississippi received $400,000, as did California, New Mexico and New York. Arizona ($161,577), Delaware ($66,100), Ohio ($223,250), and North and South Dakota ($116,649 jointly) received less.

&uot;The district can provide a free breakfast or a free lunch or free breakfasts and lunches,&uot; said Charles Kirby, director of the Office of Child Nutrition at the Mississippi Department of Education in Jackson.

Jefferson County gives all students in grades K-12 free breakfasts and lunches, Dickey said.

&uot;The kids just don’t eat like they should,&uot; he said. &uot;At least we give them a nutritious breakfast and lunch.&uot;

&uot;Some of these children would eat a bag of chips and a candy bar for lunch,&uot; Kirby said. &uot;Nutritious meals will help them to perform better in school.&uot;

Schools benefit in three ways from Provision 3, Kirby said.

First, it eliminates the cost and burden of filling out free and reduced lunch forms each year. Under this provision, schools can fill out forms once every four years to document the students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Secondly, it eliminates the administrative cost of maintaining meal counts by category and type, Kirby said. The Jefferson County School District still maintains a daily meal count for inventory and meal planning purposes.

Lastly, Provision 3 greatly increases the speed and efficiency of the cafeteria service line.

&uot;The concept is to simplify and provide quicker service for the children,&uot; Kirby said.

The faster the children are served, he said, the more time the children have to eat their meals without detracting from the academic day.

The time that would have been spent in making change for the few students paying for lunches would have significantly slowed the rest of the lunch line.

&uot;Plus it removes the stigma associated with the free or reduced lunch for those children – everyone is treated the same,&uot; he said.

Decisions on which schools participate in Provision 3 are made on a school by school basis.

Only 17 of the 149 public school districts are participating in this first year of Provision 3, Kirby said.

&uot;Some other districts want to see how it goes with the first 17,&uot; he said.

No free lunch?

Providing a free lunch for poverty-level children does not necessarily set a precedent of dependence, said Sherry Johnston, director of the technical assistance division of the Office of Child Nutrition.

&uot;Our goal is to provide a balanced lunch,&uot; Johnston said.

&uot;The children don’t pay for their textbooks in Mississippi,&uot; she said, adding that balanced nutrition is as important to learning as the books children study.

&uot;We teach them to make wise choices for life,&uot; Johnston said. &uot;We just feel really good about this program.&uot;

Dickey is a believer in the free lunch program, even though it just began with the 1999-2000 school year in Jefferson County.

&uot;This year, we’re in a new phase of the lunchroom here,&uot; Dickey said.

Keeping track

&uot;We will probably do a survey at the end of the school year to see how it went,&uot; Kirby said.

At that time, the Office of Child nutrition at the Mississippi Department of Education will evaluate the program with superintendents of the participating schools districts and their cafeteria managers.

&uot;We’ll look at what worked and what didn’t work,&uot; he said.

When a school district has a free or reduced lunch participation rate of 80 percent or more, Kirby said, they become a candidate for the Provision 3 programs.

&uot;We think the program has merit for many districts,&uot; he said.

Dickey said the Jefferson County School District will determine the cost to benefit ratio of the new lunchroom program at the end of this school year.

Grant to go further

The Mississippi Department of Education recently received $400,000 two-year grant for education and promotion of Provision 3 programs, Kirby said.

&uot;We’ll receive training information on Provision 3,&uot; Kirby said.

&uot;We’ll also receive computer software that will forecast specific data and cost analysis for school districts considering transition to Provision 3 status.&uot;

The software will allow school districts to accurately project the cost of converting to totally free lunches for high poverty schools, he said.

&uot;They have to make their decision on a school by school basis,&uot; Kirby said. &uot;But they will have good data from this software to make a more informed decision.&uot;