Russell Co. school board plans to make all campuses tobacco-free, renews free-lunch-for-all plan after breaking even

School districts in Kentucky often deal with health issues. The Russell County Board of Education dealt with two important ones, tobacco use and school lunch, in its meeting last week.

State officials are pushing to get schools to make their campuses tobacco-free as a way of discouraging smoking, since Kentucky has the highest percentage of smokers in the nation and ranks near the top in youth smoking.

The Russell County school board heard first reading of a policy that would ban use of tobacco products on all school campuses at any time, including events such as outdoor athletic contests. “Board Member Gerald Murray indicated that those who attended the meeting were for the complete ban, and wanted the public informed that if they had concerns, either for or against the ban, they need to attend the next board meeting to be heard,” The Times Journal of Russell Springs reports. “The next reading and vote will be at a special called meeting on June 30.”

June 30 was the original deadline for school districts to decide whether to participate in the federal program that makes free meals available to every student in school districts with certain levels of poverty and public assistance.

The board voted to stay in the program after Nutrition Director Susan Melton reported “the program has resulted in a 73 percent breakfast participation rate, an increase of 28 percent compared to 2012-2013 school year, and nearly double the state breakfast participation rate of 39 percent,” the Times Journal reports. “The lunch participation rate was 90 percent over the last school year, up eight percent from 2012-2013.”

The newspaper notes that the district has to pay only 6 percent of the cost, compared to 20 percent in the normal program, which charges some students regular or reduced prices for meals based on their family income. Some school districts have not joined the program, saying they might lose money on it, and Russell County feared likewise, but Melton said it “has been essentially ‘break even’ for the county” and has benefits; research has shown that hungry children are less able to learn.

“We went into this last year understanding we may lose $12,000 to $15,000,” Board Member Steve Kerr said. “But we all agreed that if we did lose that it was still well worth it. And with it being a break even situation you couldn’t ask for anything better than that. And with the way it looks for the coming school year, I’m extremely pleased with it. Our students are the ones who benefit so that makes everything worth it.”

The state Department of Education expects about 100 of Kentucky’s 173 public school districts to participate during the coming school year in a federal program that makes free meals available to all children in a school if at least 40 percent of its students already qualify for free meals through federal programs, Valarie Honeycutt Spears reports of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

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