More hungry kids could get fed if Wichita schools would get with the program

Once again, the Wichita school district plans to opt out of a program that would allow many schools to offer free meals to all students.

Once again, for the sixth year, district officials say logistical concerns, paperwork and questions about potential costs will prevent them from applying for the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal initiative designed to combat hunger at high-poverty schools.

Once again, Wichita remains reluctant to implement the free-meals-for-all option, which is working well in Topeka, Kansas City, Kan., Hutchinson and Derby.

Enough with the hesitation and excuses. It’s past time for the state’s largest school district to figure this out and make it work.

The Community Eligibility Provision, a piece of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, has been available to Kansas districts since 2014. The program gives schools in high-poverty areas the option to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost to families, no questions asked.

Groups that advocate against childhood hunger, including Kansas Appleseed, say it would help ensure that more children get two healthy meals while they’re at school. And we know that well-nourished children are better able to focus in class and ultimately do better in school.

Officials in Topeka, which implemented the free-meals-for-all option five years ago, say the program’s benefits far outweigh any initial start-up struggles. This fall, 20 of the city’s 29 schools will offer free meals for everyone.

To secure state funding for at-risk students — a perennial concern voiced by Wichita officials — Topeka continues to have families complete free-lunch applications during enrollment.

Nicole Jahnke, director of child nutrition services for Topeka schools, says the paperwork and meal-tracking under Community Eligibility is no more onerous than the standard federal lunch program.

“There really isn’t any extra work that needs to be done,” Jahnke said. “Our families love the program because it saves them time and money, and our teachers love it because they know kids are getting fed.”

Qualifying districts can implement free lunches at one school, a group of schools or districtwide. Wichita could implement the program at its highest-poverty schools at no additional cost to the district.

Wichita schools have made strides toward feeding hungry children. Recent initiatives include extended serving times in cafeterias, grab-and-go meals, and “second chance breakfast,” in which students are offered breakfast after homeroom or first period. Many schools offer free after-school snacks.

The district also helps administer the Summer Food Service Program, which ensures that children in low-income areas receive nutritious meals during school vacations.

District spokeswoman Susan Arensman said infrastructure challenges will keep Wichita schools from trying the free-lunch-for-all program this year, “but (we) would still like to pilot in the future.”

We hope that’s the case. Because stalling on Community Eligibility — eschewing even the idea of a pilot project at a handful of schools — means Wichita is missing out on a program that could help thousands of families.

It’s past time to give it a try.