School lunch bill throws free meals into limbo

A proposed rewrite of federal policy could throw free school breakfast and lunch into limbo for thousands of Kentuckiana students.

Under a current provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – the federal law guiding school nutrition – schools where at least 40 percent of students rely on food stamps or other forms of government aid, are homeless or meet other criteria can provide all students in the school with free breakfast and lunch.

The current rules, U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, of Indiana, wrote last week, are “perverse” and “incentivize schools to be paid for giving out meals to all students, even to those whose families can or already do pay for their kids’ lunches,” – which is why a bill he sponsored calls for increasing that qualifying threshold 60 percent.

“By increasing that requirement to 60 (percent), we at least make sure that a small majority of students actually qualify for the taxpayer-subsidized meal, before taxpayers have to pay for all students to receive them,” Rokita wrote.

Though Rokita recently told the IndyStar a change like this would save about $1 billion in federal funds over the next decade, it could also throw free school meals into limbo for thousands of students in Louisville and Southern Indiana attending schools where more than 40 percent, but less than 60 percent, of students meet criteria laid out by the Community Eligibility Provision.

And at schools like Brooks Elementary in Bullitt County – where 60 percent of students this year meet CEP identification requirements but previous years’ figures hovered a couple points below that – whether or not students get free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision could change from year to year, depending on “who moves into the neighborhood or who moves out,” said Angela Voyles, who oversees food and nutrition services for the district.

Since the Community Eligibility Provision became available to schools two years ago, Brooks has been providing its roughly 480 students with free breakfast and lunch, although about 28 percent come from families that can afford full-price lunch, according to data from the Kentucky Department of Education. About 60 percent of Brooks students are homeless, receiving government assistance or otherwise meet the CEP criteria, so every student who wants a free breakfast and lunch can have it.

Sherri Bishop, the schools’ family resource center coordinator, said participation in CEP has made a huge difference. Before the program, Bishop would every week call parents whose students repeatedly didn’t have lunch money. Many told her they simply couldn’t afford it.

“It was a huge relief for a lot of people when we were actually able to be part of this program, and they wouldn’t have to worry about how they were going to pay for breakfast or how they were going to pay for lunch,” she said.

And while $2.45 for a chicken patty – or 40 cents for families whose income qualifies their children for reduced price lunch – doesn’t seem like a huge financial burden, it starts to add up day after day and, in many cases, for multiple children, school officials said.

Even for children who fall outside the groups outlined in the Community Eligibility Provision, Voyles said, paying for school lunch can be a hardship.

“Lunch money is, a lot of the times, the first thing to go when you cut budgets,” she said.

Although it’s just one way food service departments can be reimbursed for providing free meals to kids, schools often prefer it because it eliminates the need to collect paperwork from students indicating eligibility for school meal benefits, which is often a difficult process for schools.

“If they’re living with a friend or something like that and they don’t have income coming in, we have to get some sort of documentation saying that they don’t,” Voyles said. “What kind of documentation do you get?”

Five Bullitt County Schools – Nichols, Marybille, Brooks, Lebanon Junction and Bullitt Lick – are at risk of losing CEP eligibility under the changes. Greater Clark’s two alternative schools, Corden Porter and Clark County Middle and High, would also be at risk. In New Albany-Floyd County Schools, the three schools currently feeding kids under the CEP surpass the 60 percent eligibility threshold. Increasing the threshold would have minimal immediate impact, Food and Nutrition Services Director Pam Casey said in an email, but eligibility could change if demographics change.

Criticism of the bill is misguided, Rokita wrote in a blog post last week, as the legislation has been “seriously mischaracterized by ideologues whose ultimate goal is universal government feeding.”

Source: Courier-Journal

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