Students at a handful of Wichita schools next year may get free lunch and breakfast regardless of family income under a program aimed at reducing child hunger.
David Paul, director of nutrition services for the Wichita district, said his staff is considering implementing the Community Eligibility Provision at Hamilton Middle School and five elementary schools – Gardiner, Harry Street, Park, Stanley and Washington.
The provision, a piece of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, gives schools in high-poverty areas the option to serve free meals to all students in an effort to reduce paperwork and the stigma of applying for low-cost lunches.
“That’s one avenue we could go. We’re not saying that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Superintendent John Allison told Wichita school board members Monday.
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“We’re looking at: Can we pilot (the program at a few schools) and be able to gauge how successful it is?” Allison said. “There’s a possibility of expanding. We’re working through that process.”
The program was available to Kansas districts for the first time this school year, but Wichita officials opted not to apply. They blamed a tight deadline, logistical concerns and unanswered questions about how the program would work, including whether ditching free-lunch applications would complicate the process for granting reduced enrollment fees and latchkey discounts to needy families.
A handful of Kansas districts, including Topeka and Kansas City, Kan., are participating in the program this year. Groups that advocate against childhood hunger say it helps ensure that more low-income children have access to healthy meals while they’re at school.
A Wichita elementary 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.
Paul, the nutrition services director, said the district would be fully reimbursed for meals served at Hamilton Middle School and the five pilot elementary schools because of the schools’ high poverty rate. At Hamilton, about 96 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
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.
Fifty-nine schools in Wichita are eligible to apply for the program, but reimbursement rates would differ depending on poverty rates. Fifteen schools would qualify for full reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, Paul said. Eighteen Wichita schools would be reimbursed at least 90 percent, and 12 schools would be reimbursed at least 80 percent.
The program is “a proven tool to make sure children in high-poverty schools are fueled up and ready to learn,” Paul said.
Allison told board members he would bring a plan to the board in coming months with specifics about which schools would participate. “This gives you an idea of the potential that’s there, and we’ll analyze it as we move forward,” he said.