There is no free lunch in life, but it just got easier to find one in Columbia County schools.
The school system's Nutrition Services department recently established an online form for those signing up for the free and reduced lunch program.
A link on the school system's Web site, www.ccboe.net, provides access to the application. Once complete, the application is validated using a student database and transferred to the free and reduced lunch program.
Even before public notice of the new program, Nutrition Services Director Jane Wiggins said 50 people had filed applications as of last week.
During a recent training session for Wiggins and her staff to learn the software for the program, she said trainers entered some fake data as a test.
"When we went in to validate the test data, real parents had already filled out applications," she said.
Wiggins said she could offer no estimate on how popular the program might become, but the number of parents seeking free and reduced lunch for their children is growing.
Last year, 6,834 pupils received free or reduced lunches. That's 29 percent of the school system's pupil population.
Ten years ago, just 19.6 percent of pupils received free or reduced lunches.
Free and reduced lunch is a government program using federal tax dollars to reimburse schools for lunches given to needy pupils.
For every lunch served, schools receive 26 cents for pupils paying full price, $2.32 for those getting a reduced price of 40 cents per meal, or $2.72 for each lunch served at no cost to pupils.
"It will speed up validation so that we don't have to handle a paper application," Wiggins said. "The way it is now, we separate applications into batches of 25. We make sure they're properly filled out, then scan and then validate them. It will save our office some time, and we can get the students approved faster."
Paper applications still will be handed out to pupils at open houses or on the first day of school.
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