Change to federal program means free meals for all students in Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Kids eating lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary, a charter school in the Orange Mound of Memphis.

All of Shelby County’s students will be able to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner for free next school year due to a change in the federal school lunch program, Shelby County School administrators told board members Tuesday.

Before, each individual student’s family had to apply and confirm that it earned below a certain income in order to be “eligible” to receive a free or reduced-price lunch subsidized by the federal government. Students received free breakfasts through the district.

But this coming fall, the federal Department of Agriculture plans to roll out out a new “community eligibility” category for schools and districts with high percentages of students living in povertyIf more than 40 percent of students in a given district, group of schools, or school are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, that entity is eligible to receive subsidies for lunches eaten by any student in the school. Individuals will no longer need to apply for the program. Shelby County Schools fits that criteria and plans to provide up to three free meals a day to students.

The change to the federal school lunch program was part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Schools Act, which was passed in 2010. The program has been rolled out in ten states and the District of Columbia since 2010. All states, including Tennessee, are eligible next school year.

The primary goal is to reduce hunger among the district’s students. But the change should also reduce wait times in school lunch lines and reduce administrative costs at the district level: Some 20 central office personnel were responsible for sorting out free and reduced-price lunch-related paperwork, according to Anthony Geraci, the head of the nutrition department, and Frank Cook, the director of nutrition finance.

Geraci said the new program should also help reduce the stigma felt by some students who received the free or reduced-price lunches, and should allow for more efficient check-out procedures at the school level.

Counterintuitively, Geraci said, the district made more money from “free” lunches than from lunches students paid for, due to federal subsidies. He said the district should see at least $4.3 million in revenues, and that local families should save close to $2 million.

The change may complicate how the district distributes some funds and how it calculates and reports other pieces of data. The percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has often been used to measure the needs of a school’s student body.

Geraci said that while the district’s overall funding won’t change, allocations to individual schools will, as well as “how we report academic performance based on economic disadvantage.” He said the change to the lunch program will also affect how the district calculates its e-rate – which helps schools get lower prices on telecommunications fees – and other fee waivers. (This Education Week article lays out the change in policy, and this one describes the way that policy will affect things like the e-rate.)

Geraci said students will see new menus next year as well. And, starting next year, much of the district’s food will have been grown by Shelby County students, he said.

Schools in the state-run Achievement School District and charter schools that contract with the district will also undergo the changes in lunch policy, district officials said.

The board will decide whether the district will participate in the program at its next meeting.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede