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Wichita still debating whether to apply for free school meals program

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, June 15, 2014, at 10:35 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, June 17, 2014, at 8:08 a.m.

Only a handful of Kansas schools may end up taking advantage of a new program that would allow them to offer free lunch and breakfast to every student regardless of family income.

According to a state official, only Hutchinson, Topeka and Kickapoo Nation schools are close to submitting applications for the Community Eligibility Provision – a piece of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – in time for the coming school year.

The provision, available in Kansas for the first time this year, is designed to combat child hunger by reducing paperwork and the stigma of applying for low-cost meals.

“I think it will take a few schools in Kansas piloting it, just jumping in and doing it this year,” said Jennifer Gardner, director of nutrition services for the Hutchinson school district. “And then, I’m sure, as we learn more, there will be more schools who decide to jump on board.”

Gardner said the Hutchinson district wants to offer the program at least at Lincoln Elementary, one of its smallest and highest-need schools, and McCandless Elementary, where about 92 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

At participating schools, all children can eat breakfast and lunch for free – no application process, no questions asked.

But Gardner, like nutrition directors across the state, is still trying to sort out details.

The first hurdle: how to identify at-risk children – and get the additional state funding tied to them – if the schools do away with free-lunch applications.

“That’s the difficult part,” Gardner said. “If Kansas didn’t tie the state funding to it, we would be a full-blown, ‘Yes, let’s do this.’ Because it will be such a benefit for the community and those schools involved.”

Groups that advocate against childhood hunger say the program would help ensure that low-income Kansas children have access to two healthy meals while they’re in school.

Cheryl Johnson, child nutrition and wellness director for the Kansas Department of Education, said she won’t know for sure how many districts plan to participate until the June 30 deadline.

More than 100 districts have at least one school that is eligible or “near eligible” to participate, based on the percentage of students who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and other programs or those who are homeless, migrants, in foster care or in Head Start.

In Wichita, where nearly three-fourths of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, 59 schools are eligible for the program. At 20 schools, the percentage of poor students meets a threshold that would allow the district to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all students without any additional cost to the district.

Wichita officials say they haven’t decided whether to apply this year. Officials from the Topeka school district and the Kickapoo Nation School in Powhattan have expressed serious interest in applying, Johnson said.

Gardner, the Hutchinson nutrition director, said she hopes that district can participate, because it would ensure that more children are fed.

“For a lot of our kids, even the 40 cents for (reduced-price) lunch and 30 cents for breakfast … if they have multiple kids in the family, that certainly adds up,” she said.

Some families who might qualify for free lunches don’t apply, she added.

Under the new program, “when the kid comes in, they don’t have to worry about whether Mom filled out an application or whether someone forgot to put lunch money in their account. They’re automatically free,” she said.

“So it reduces that burden on the kids. … I think it would really provide a little more peace going into the lunchroom.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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