CHIPLEY - All students in Washington County District Schools will receive free breakfast and lunch for the remainder of the school year, WCDS announced Wednesday.

"Due to an increase in additional certification from Hurricane Michael, our district has been approved for Community Eligibility," a WCDS news release stated.

The new status comes as a federal response to the damages families suffered from Hurricane Michael. About 70 displaced students relocated to the district after the storm, qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Also, local families who felt the financial pressure applied for the status.

"After the storm, when (Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) set up in all of our counties around here ... people could come in and make claims," said Pat Collins, WCDS Director of Human Resources, who is handling the process into the new designation. "We had about 1,200 additional students that qualified after DSNAP set up and probably about 170 kids that were displaced by the storm - homeless, living with somebody else, living in a camper."

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is program that provides free meals for schools and school districts in low-income areas. According to the website of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which provides the program to school districts through Fresh from Florida, CEP allows the nation's highest poverty schools and districts to serve meals at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.

Instead, the website states, the schools provide the meals and are reimbursed from USDA.

Fresh from Florida approached the WCDS about a temporary waiver to assist the students following the storm, which was approved to Nov. 30; the district got an extension to Jan. 7.

"And then based upon enrollment data as of Dec. 21, we met the threshold eligibility and so, they came back and told us we were eligible to receive it for the remainder of the year," Collins said.

In order to qualify for CEP, at least 40-percent of students at each school in the district have to be on free or reduced lunch - which is the now case for WCDS.

WCDS received the status for the next three years. And, unless the program creates conflict with limitations for funding from other governmental programs, the district will not reevaluate its participation in CEP.

"We're excited, it's very positive," Superintendent Joseph Taylor said Friday morning. "It's positive for our students, our communities and its positive for our district that we've been able to do this."

In order for families to qualify for reduced meals, families of four can have an annual income of no more than $32,630. For free meals, $46,435.

In August last year, the Washington County School Board unanimously denied a couple of Title I schools participation in the United States Department of Agriculture's Universal Free Breakfast program, which would guarantee all students at both schools free breakfast.

The problem was that the district would be responsible to pay for the students who were not on free or reduced lunch status at those schools.

Although under a different program, but similarly speaking, according to district officials, about four years ago the district had participated in CEP, however, all schools did not meet the 40-percentile threshold, which left the district doling out money to pay for the remaining students that were in families required to pay full price.

"We were like the second district in the state to apply for the program," Taylor said, noting the state and the federal governments had not anticipated some of the kinks in the program early on, but has since found ways to mitigate them. "But (now) all of our schools are good, we have the numbers, we have the approvals."