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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Students will eat for free at six West Valley schools

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Students at six schools in the West Valley School District will eat for free for the next four years under the federally and state funded Community Eligibility Program.

“Once a school reaches a certain threshold for free and reduced lunch, you become eligible,” said Tim Morgan, the district’s director of transportation and nutrition.

It’s not just the number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch that determines eligibility, however. Some students receive what is called direct certification. That means that they don’t even have to apply for free or reduced lunch because they are already enrolled in a program such as SNAP or TANF, Morgan said. A school must have a 40% direct certification rate before it can apply for the Community Eligibility Program and the application must be renewed every four years.

The good news is that schools can be submitted as a group, so a school with a high direct certification rate can be paired with a school with a lower rate. As an example, Dishman High School has a direct certification rate of 70% while Spokane Valley High School hovers near or just less than 40%. The district paired those schools together when applying for the program to ensure that Spokane Valley High School is included, Morgan said.

Grouping schools only works to a certain extent, Morgan said. The process can’t be used to include a school with a very low direct certification rate.

“They at least have to be close to that 40% so they don’t bring everybody else down and then no one qualifies,” he said.

The schools in the Community Eligibility Program are the Millwood Kindergarten Center, Orchard Center Elementary, Seth Woodard Elementary, Ness Elementary, Spokane Valley High School and Dishman Hills High School. Students in those schools can simply line up each day to receive free breakfast and lunch and don’t have to enroll in anything, Morgan said. Families will only asked to fill out a simple survey that is sent home at the beginning of the year.

All students in the district eat for free because of special COVID protocols in place, but this program will ensure that students at six of the district’s schools will continue to eat for free once the special COVID rules end, Morgan said.

In addition to benefiting the students, the program is also good for the district, Morgan said.

The district is typically reimbursed for the meals it serves, but at a rate that doesn’t pay for the entire meal, he said. In recent years, it hasn’t been unusual for the school lunch program to be subsidized by general fund dollars or levy dollars, Morgan said. The goal, however, is for the meal program to be self-sufficient.

“Our district has struggled with that in years past,” he said.

Under the Community Eligibility Program, each school is reimbursed at the full free meal rate for 92% of students and at the reduced-price rate for 4% of students. The other 4% are reimbursed at the regular “pay” rate, which is much lower. The higher reimbursements will push the district’s meal program much closer to self-sufficiency, Morgan said.

“It’s going to be a really big change for our district,” he said.

The Community Eligibility Program is used by other districts in the area but perhaps not as much as it could be because of the difficult requirements, Morgan said.

“It is a little bit of an administrative nightmare,” he said.

Spokane Public Schools has 13 schools enrolled in the Community Eligibility Program. The first group of three elementary schools – Grant, Holmes and Stevens – enrolled in the 2014-2015 school year. The second group of Logan Elementary and Pratt Academy began in the 2018-2019 school year. Since then, the Bemiss, Regal, Whitman, Lidgerwood, Audubon, Sheridan and Longfellow elementary schools have signed up for the program, as well as Garry Middle School.

West Valley enrolled Dishman High School in the program three years ago and decided to add more schools now because it is time to renew the high school’s eligibility.

Morgan said the school was something of a test run as the district tried to figure out the best practices for administering the program.

“Once we got those practices in play, we figured we could roll it out to other schools,” he said. “We were able to use those practices and familiarize ourselves with the process.”

It’s possible that the program could be expanded to other schools in the future, but Morgan said it all depends on each school’s direct certification rate.

“This is what qualifies right now,” he said.

Nina Culver can be reached at nculver47@gmail.com.

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