Wichita school district won’t take part in new free meals program

07/31/2014 7:13 AM

07/31/2014 8:21 AM

Wichita will not participate in a new program that would offer free meals to every student regardless of family income – at least not this school year, officials said.

“A final decision on future participation has not yet been made,” said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

But for the coming year, the state’s largest district does not plan to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program designed to combat hunger at high-poverty schools by reducing paperwork and the stigma of applying for low-cost meals.

“We are continuing to evaluate the program,” Arensman said. The district potentially could apply next year.

Groups that advocate against childhood hunger say the program, available for the first time this year to high-poverty schools in Kansas — including 59 in Wichita — would help ensure that more low-income children have access to healthy meals while they’re at school.

School officials in Wichita and elsewhere said a tight deadline, logistical concerns and unanswered questions about cost likely would prevent them from applying. Districts have until Aug. 31 to apply.

So far only a handful of districts have said they plan to participate, said Cheryl Johnson, child nutrition and wellness director for the Kansas Department of Education.

Topeka schools will take the lead among major Kansas districts, Johnson said, implementing the program at 13 high-poverty schools this fall. Hutchinson and the Kickapoo Nation also are close to submitting applications, she said.

Public schools in Kansas City, Mo., where 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, also plan to offer free meals to all students starting in August.

Shannon Cotsoradis, CEO of Kansas Action for Children, which is encouraging eligible districts to join the program, called Wichita’s decision “disappointing.”

“We recognize that there are some challenges for districts in this first year. … but there are large districts that are working through it. Topeka is a great example,” Cotsoradis said.

“We just hope that Wichita won’t close the door on this permanently, particularly given the high percentage of students in the Wichita community that would benefit and the struggles we have around increased percentages of kids living in poverty in Kansas.”

About three-fourths of Wichita’s 51,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Cotsoradis said the new program would ensure that every student at a qualifying school gets fed, including those whose families may be unaware or embarrassed to apply for assistance or those who fall just short of qualifying.

“Kids who are living in low-income families that are on the edge of qualifying won’t benefit,” she said. “And I think for many of those kids, that does mean they will go without adequate nutrition.

“We know we’ve got a lot of families … who are struggling to meet basic needs every day.”

A Wichita elementary school student who qualifies for reduced-price breakfast and lunch would save about $120 a year on school meals under the program. A student paying full price would save about $570 a year.

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.

The program aims to feed more needy children by doing away with the application process that may confuse or dissuade some families. At participating schools, all children would be able to eat breakfast and lunch at no cost, no questions asked.

Qualifying districts can implement free lunches at one school, a group of schools or districtwide. 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.

Wichita could implement the program at its highest-poverty schools at no additional cost to the district. Implementing the program districtwide – offering free breakfast and lunch to every student, every day – would cost the district about $3.4 million a year, officials estimate.

Darren Muci, director of operations for the Wichita school district, said in May that community eligibility is “an awesome potential program, but the devil is in the details.”

Implementing the program only in certain schools could create a sort of caste system within the district, he said, and complicate matters for families with children at different schools or those who move from school to school.

And although ditching free-lunch applications would reduce paperwork for meals, districts still would have to identify needy families for additional state funding, reduced enrollment fees, latchkey discounts and more.

Topeka officials said their district will qualify for partial reimbursement for extra meals from the USDA. Administrators expect to cover the unreimbursed portion at no cost to the district because more students likely will eat meals at school, boosting the lunch reimbursement based on number of meals served.

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