When school starts Wednesday, all students in 27 of Fayette County's Public Schools will receive free breakfast and lunch as part of a federal program that has expanded.
The Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that started in 2010 as a pilot in Kentucky and other states, will allow schools to provide more students with free meals, regardless of household income.
"I'm thrilled that we will be able to provide this service to more than 14,000 students in our school district," Fayette Superintendent Tom Shelton said Monday. "In order for us to help every child succeed, we have to remove barriers to learning. This will be a wonderful change for the students and families we serve."
Changes to the national school lunch program now give local school officials the option of providing free breakfast and lunch to all students at schools in which at least 40 percent of students are certified to receive free meals. Those students already receive federal money from a government program such as food stamps or Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor and disabled.
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School officials say that the program is beneficial because no student feels singled out because of their economic situation.
Tricia Hensley, president of the PTA at the Academy for Leadership at Millcreek Elementary, which is participating, said that hunger can be "a huge barrier to learning."
"If a child's stomach is growling, they can not concentrate," Hensley said.
Hensley said her family does not qualify for free or reduced lunches, but she is glad about the savings.
"Every family is looking for a break in today's economy," Hensley said.
Marie Harrison, whose daughter attends Arlington Elementary, also a school that will participate, was so happy to hear about the program that she posted on the district's Facebook page, "This is a stress that just went away."
Harrison told the Herald-Leader that her family doesn't qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches and breakfasts, but the costs of the school meals pressed the families' budget.
Cardinal Valley, Deep Springs, Bryan Station Middle, Crawford Middle and Bryan Station High and three special programs, including the Lexington Day Treatment Center, are among the schools that will receive lunch and breakfast at no charge.
Last school year, the Lexington Day Treatment Center was the only school to participate in the program as part of a pilot.
The national lunch program will reimburse the district for the cost of meals at those schools, so the program will not cause a loss in funding for the Fayette County Department of Child Nutrition, school officials said.
"Eating a healthy breakfast and lunch is an important part of ensuring that our students are ready to learn," said Michelle Coker, Fayette County Director of Child Nutrition.
Families that had been paying for their children's meals will save $637.20 a year at the elementary school level and $681.45 at the middle and high school level, officials said. The total savings for families in the 27 participating schools will be more than $2 million.
"I'm all for it," said Lakeisha Bell, the president of the Southern Elementary PTA, "I don't see a negative about it."
Statewide, the Kentucky Department of Education anticipated in June that 100 of the state's 173 school districts would participate in the program in 2014-15.
Earlier in the summer, the Fayette County school board set prices for breakfast and lunch for 2014-15. The full price for breakfast at elementary, middle and high schools did not change. It will remain $1.35.
Elementary schools will charge $2.25 — an increase of 10 cents from 2013-14 — for lunch this year. The price at middle and high schools will increase by 25 cents, to $2.50.
The price increases were mandated by the state and federal government.