• September 24, 2020

ECISD goal is to keep students fed - Odessa American: ECISD

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ECISD goal is to keep students fed

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Posted: Sunday, August 2, 2020 4:30 am

Although Ector County ISD’s School Nutrition Department had been working toward feeding every child in the district, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated those plans.

Director of School Nutrition Brandon Reyes said his department was using a U.S. Department of Agriculture program called the Summer Food Service Program to provide meals.

“That program has its own rules, regulations and requirements that ultimately allows us to provide meals free of charge to any child under the age of 18, with the exception of … certain circumstances,” Reyes said.

Once school restarts Aug. 12, nothing extends the program beyond the summer. That meant the department had to return to its normal USDA operating programs, the national school breakfast and lunch program.

“… In anticipation of this, we wanted to make sure that we were proactive and trying to come up with a way to continue. Just because school starts doesn’t mean that families (aren’t) still having a hard time,” Reyes said.

He added that the Odessa’s June unemployment rate was the highest in Texas at 13 percent.

“That’s highly indicative of the current environment,” Reyes said. “We had plans in place to phase in universal free feeding programs anyway, but due to the pandemic we felt it was important to accelerate that so it’s one less thing for families to worry about for this upcoming school year.”

The way they are able to do this is by operating two separate USDA programs.

“All elementary campuses are participating in what’s called the Community Eligibility Provision Program. We qualify for that program through information we’ve received directly from the state for students who are identified as economically disadvantaged and qualify for free meals without the completion of a free and reduced meal application. These means means-tested programs (like) SNAP, TANF, migrant, foster, McKinney-Vento and things of that nature,” Reyes said.

SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; TANF stands for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and McKinney-Vento is a federal law under which some children are considered homeless.

The threshold to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision Program is 40 percent. By combining all the elementary campuses, that percentage is 45 percent for ECISD.

“That means without completing the free and reduced application, 45 percent of those households qualify for free meals,” Reyes noted.

The funding mainly comes from the federal government, but it is also from revenue of people that pay for meals.

Because the district didn’t reach 40 percent with the middle and high schools, they decided on a universal free feeding program.

“… Every year through this program for the middle and high schools, we are still required to send out meal applications and families complete them and turn them back in because we claim meals based off of the applications that they turn in. It’s absolutely vital that if middle and high school parents who receive the application, or go online to complete the meal application, it’s very important that we get that participation because that’s what essentially funds the program and will allow us to continue to do it in future years,” Reyes said.

“Something that’s important to note is that with the … Community Eligibility Provision Program, free and reduced meal applications are not allowed to be sent out to those households, so the way that the district accounts for socioeconomic status is through income surveys. Income surveys will be distributed by the campuses this school year, and once again, it’s very vital to both the district, the district’s academic funding and our ability to participate in the program that if families receive an income survey they complete it and return it back to the respective campus so that we can account for the data that we need,” he added.

Reyes said his department is working to send out notification letters to households with an explanation and context to increase the likelihood of community participation.

Pricewise the programs save $495 per year for middle school families and $450 for elementary families.

“There’s a saying that I’ve heard where there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That is very true, but USDA offers and funds these programs. They just impose requirements for us to keep up in order to operate these programs,” Reyes said.

He noted that the local source of revenue is from families who pay for meals and the a la carte program, but the bulk comes from federal funding.

“I’m not too keen on that part of the equation, but I do know that in order for our department to be successful in implementing these programs we will need community support by either completing an income survey if you’re an elementary parent, or a free and reduced meal application if you’re a middle and high school parent,” Reyes said.

“We will do our best to communicate that out as much as possible so that we’re able to continue this each year going forward,” he added.

The School Nutrition Department, including its central office staff, has 262 people. He said his team members have been working since the start of the pandemic and into the summer months, but they have not complained.

“This is a testament to the dedication and hard work of our team members. I have the utmost respect for them and will make sure to do right by them as much as I can throughout this process,” Reyes said.

Each campus has a full-service kitchen, but there are few sites where they make meals on one campus and deliver it to another location.

“But 95 percent of our meals are cooked and provided on site. It’s important we have that as an advantage,” Reyes said.

Odessa, TX

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