ARMONA — The Armona Unified School District changed to a new, free lunch program last year that now offers free meals to all Armona Elementary and Parkview Middle School students.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a School Nutrition Program (SNP) that helps offer students free meals in high poverty schools.

Superintendent Xavier Pina says the free lunch program started last year for the 2016-17 school year and will continue with the 2017-18 school year.

“Our cafeteria folks here in the district office saw this community eligibility provision and said, you know what, let's apply, let's provide this opportunity for all of our students,” Pina said.

Through the CEP, schools in high-poverty areas eliminate the school meal applications and still serve breakfast and lunch free of charge.

“This CEP program allows all students to eat breakfast and lunch at no cost,” Pina said. "It helps with not having to label kids; instead of saying these are the poor kids, we are going to provide free lunches to all students.”

Pina didn’t want to have any barriers for students, and said the district board had already shown an interest previous years before.

According to the California Department of Education, schools that have implemented the CEP have experienced striking increases in school meal participation, with many reporting improved attendance.

Jodi Cooper, district office cafeteria clerk, said the program helps open availability to all students, without having to worry about funding.

“We had several parents that mentioned that they were very excited that this was an opportunity we were able to get,” said Cooper.

Breakfasts for Armona Elementary takes place in the classroom from 8:15-8:30 a.m., followed by lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Parkview starts its breakfast at 9:50 a.m. for seventh and eighth grades, while the fifth and sixth grades have theirs at 8:50 a.m., followed by a long lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The meals in both programs, whether free or paid, do not change, according to Cooper.

Pina said working through the CEP program is also less of a hassle than having to differentiate what students can get.

“We had low-income students, reduced-priced students and paid students," Pina said. "The record keeping meant that if you had students who paid, but then for whatever reason weren’t paying, you had to charge them.

"This is much cleaner."

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