Wichita schools could offer free lunch and breakfast to every student regardless of family income under a new program aimed at reducing child hunger.
But officials say a looming deadline, logistical concerns and unanswered questions about cost may prevent them from applying for the program.
“It’s an awesome potential program,” said Darren Muci, director of operations for the Wichita school district. “But the devil is in the details.
“We would have to work quickly to determine how this looks and how it would all work.”
For the first time, high-poverty schools in Kansas are eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision, a piece of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that gives schools the option to serve free meals in an effort to reduce paperwork and the stigma of applying for low-cost lunches.
Starting July 1, the option is available to eligible school districts across the country after a three-year pilot program in 11 states was deemed successful. Districts must apply to the Kansas Department of Education by June 30 if they want to participate.
Kansas schools with high concentrations of poor students are eligible to apply for the program, including 59 in Wichita. Other area districts with schools eligible to participate include Augusta, Derby, El Dorado, Goddard, Haysville, Newton, Wellington and Winfield.
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 at school.
“Nearly 20 percent of Kansas children live in households that are food insecure, unsure where their next meal will come from,” said Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, an anti-poverty nonprofit organization.
Community eligibility – providing free breakfasts and lunches to all students, not just those who apply and qualify for free or reduced-price meals – would be “an opportunity to get good, nutritious food to hungry kids,” Magnuson said. “That means they’ll do better in the classroom and have healthier lives.”
How it works
Districts qualify for the program if at least one school has 40 percent or more students who qualify for free meals without applying. These include students from households that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and other programs, or those who are homeless, migrants, in foster care or in Head Start.
A school’s percentage of so-called “identified students” does not match its percentage of those receiving free or reduced-price lunches. For example, about 63 percent of students at Colvin Elementary School in Wichita are automatically approved for free meals without applying, but nearly 98 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
The program aims to feed more needy children by doing away with the application process that may confuse or dissuade some families. At participating districts or schools, all children would be able to eat breakfast and lunch at no cost, no questions asked.
States that implemented universal meals during the 2012-13 school year, including Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, reported increases in the number of students eating school lunches and breakfasts – about 13 percent more ate school lunches and 25 percent more ate breakfast.
Districts could implement free lunches in one school, a group of schools or districtwide. They also could group schools into clusters – high-poverty schools with lower-poverty schools – as long as the poverty rate of the cluster exceeds the 40 percent eligibility threshold.
But here’s where it gets tricky – and potentially costly, says Muci: Districts would have to pick up some of the cost for schools or clusters where fewer than 62.5 percent of students automatically qualify for free lunches.
About 47 percent of the students in the Wichita district are “identified students,” those who qualify for free meals without application.
Wichita district leaders said they ran the numbers for implementing the program districtwide. Had universal meals been in place in February, Muci said, the cost to the district of providing free meals that month would have been about $343,000. Over the course of a year, the cost could exceed $3.4 million.
Wichita could choose to implement the program only in its highest-poverty schools, but that raises other concerns.
“Then there’s the perception, ‘Ah, School A – that’s the free-food school,’ ” Muci said.
That could create a sort of caste system within the district and complicate matters for families with children at different schools or those who move from school to school.
“Our ideal situation is that all schools qualify and you get reimbursement to cover everything,” Muci said. “Or all schools qualify … and you come up with a way to fund that with some other source.
“The challenge for us is that it forces us to kind of put together puzzles,” he said. “Ideally, we would have liked to have another year to analyze the information, look at the data, assess that and make some decisions.”
There are other concerns as well.
Doing away with free-lunch applications would remove the district’s primary method of identifying poverty rates – a crucial statistic in deciding how much additional state funding it gets for at-risk children.
Families that qualify for free meals get their costs reduced or waived for other things as well, including enrollment fees, instrument rental, pay-to-play athletic fees and latchkey rates.
Ditching the free-lunch application may reduce paperwork for meals, Muci said, “But there would have to be another form developed to capture that at-risk funding information, and we would need to determine who’s going to do that.”
So far, state officials have not offered such a form for districts to use. If that’s not created by the June 30 deadline, Muci said, it’s not likely the state’s largest school district would be able to implement the program by the 2014-15 school year.
Then there are logistical concerns.
Should Wichita find a way to finance the program and calibrate at-risk funding, schools would have to figure out how to handle increased demand for breakfasts and lunches – particularly some high schools, where many students don’t eat school meals.
Most school cafeterias could handle increased lunch traffic, Muci said. But more students eating breakfast could create another challenge – getting them from buses to cafeterias and then to classrooms in time for the morning bell.
During the pilot project, West Virginia required its community eligibility schools to implement at least one “innovative breakfast strategy” – breakfast after the bell, breakfast in the classroom or “grab and go” breakfast – and saw its breakfast participation increase by 10 percent, according to a federal report.
If Wichita were to implement the program, “We would need to see how we would manage breakfast in the classroom,” Muci said.
The district has tried that at a handful of elementary schools, with moderate success.
“Not only does that take time, but it presents other challenges for your custodial staff” and teachers, who would have to manage breakfast cleanup, Muci said.
Despite potential challenges, Wichita officials say they haven’t ruled out applying for the program.
“We’re still analyzing the information and the data,” Muci said. “We are not in a position where we can tell you if we are going to submit an application by June 30.”
Smaller Kansas districts such as Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal – which have high poverty rates but fewer schools – could have an easier time implementing the program this fall. If Wichita chooses not to apply this year, it could do so next year.
Groups that advocate for hungry children, including Kansas Action for Children, have set up websites aimed at encouraging districts to participate, calling the program “a huge step in the fight to end child hunger in Kansas.”
Adopting universal meals would benefit not only high-poverty schools, said Jannett Wiens of Harvesters: The Community Food Network, but also “the many students that they serve who might otherwise struggle to get enough food to eat each day.”