Students at 19 Lafayette Parish schools could receive free meals in the upcoming school year, if the school district qualifies for a new USDA program for high-poverty areas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s community eligibility provision provides free breakfast and lunch to schools — and entire districts — in low-income areas in lieu of having parents fill out annual applications for free or reduced-price meals.

Eligibility for the program is based on the percentage of students whose families qualify for federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. Students who are homeless, migrant or in foster care also count toward the eligibility requirements. Schools and entire school districts qualify for the provision if at least 40 percent of their students qualify for free meals.

The program is designed, in part, to reduce the annual paperwork for both families and school districts. The program was authorized as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. As of Sept. 1, at least 44 school districts in the state elected to participate, according to the USDA.

The Lafayette school system’s child nutrition services director, Renee Sherville, explained the program to the School Board at its May 20 meeting.

Students may qualify for free or reduced-lunch prices, but their parents must fill out an application to determine eligibility. However, Sherville said many families who would qualify don’t submit the paperwork.

“We’re just getting our parents in this district to understand that you have to apply annually. It’s not once free, always free,” she told board members.

The reduced rate for school lunch is 40 cents and breakfast is 30 cents, but that’s still a stretch for some parents, she said.

“Parents struggle — even reduced rate is sometimes a burden,” she said.

For now, the district could implement the program at select schools, rather than districtwide, because a full implementation would cost the district $2.7 million, Sherville told board members.

The deadline to apply for the program is Aug. 31.

Sherville said the school system is moving forward with its application and parents will soon be notified about the provision.

Those schools identified as possible participants are: Acadian Middle, Alice Boucher Elementary, Charles Burke Elementary, Carencro Middle, Carencro Heights Elementary, Katharine Drexel Elementary, Duson Elementary, Evangeline Elementary, J.W. Faulk Elementary, Lafayette Middle, Live Oak Elementary, S.J. Montgomery Elementary, N.P. Moss Prep, Northside High, Ossun Elementary, Prairie Elementary, Scott Middle, Truman Early Childhood Center and Westside Elementary.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.