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School lunch program could mean millions for community, superintendent says

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FINISHING UP:Students and staff mingle Friday as a lunch period at Peru High School comes to an end.
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LUNCH TIME:Lunchroom employees, Susan Clemons and Beverly Creager, prepare to serve students on Friday at Peru High School.
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GETTING READY:Susan Clemons and Bobbi Kern check the temperature on prepared food before another round of students file in for lunch on Friday at Peru High School.

BY JARED KEEVER - jkeever@perutribune.com

A program, recently fully adopted by Peru Community Schools, has the potential to not only ensure every student gets two free meals a day but to also put more than a million dollars a year back into the local economy.

Those are the main points that school superintendent Sam Watkins wants parents and community members to know about a meals program called the Community Eligibility Provision.

“We call it CEP,” Watkins told the Tribune in late September. “It’s a state and federal program that provides assistance to lower income communities.”

“Our four schools meet that threshold,” he added. “It provides free breakfast and lunch and even dinner for our students.”

It’s not entirely new to the area, Watkins explained. The district’s elementary schools and junior high have qualified for a few years, but during the recent reapplication process the high school was also added.

That means all of Peru’s 1,933 students now qualify for the meals just by virtue of being enrolled. 

Not only does that eliminate the common lunchroom stigma often associated with a student receiving “free and reduced” lunches, Watkins said, but it really helps the math make an impact in the community.

Breakfasts, the superintendent pointed out, run $1.25 per day. Lunches costs $2.60. That means a family with one student stands to save a little more than $690 over the 180-day school year because the school board adopted the program, Watkins said.

That per-student savings, multiplied by the 1,933 students currently enrolled, means a community-wide savings of $1.3 million per year. 

“That number is then going to be put back into our community,” Watkins said.

And it can continue for the next four years until the schools have to reapply, meaning the savings can be even more substantial. 

“I get goosebumps,” he added. “This is what means to our community and to our families.”

Watkins said he wants families to know that the meals are available to all students so they can take advantage of them and so that the district, which can only be reimbursed for each meal claimed, can fully benefit from the program.

Parents can still add money to a student’s a la carte fund so other items can be purchased, he said, and the schools are also working on providing evening meals – like sack meals for traveling sports teams – as well.

For now, though, Watkins said he is happy that the two early meals are fully available.

“We want every student to eat breakfast and lunch every day at Peru Community Schools,” he said.