Free school lunch program expands

Even in a state with high poverty rates, Nampa is a high-poverty district.

In 2014-15, 64 percent of Nampa’s 14,892 students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunch. In five Nampa elementary schools, this percentage topped 80 percent — well above the statewide average of 49 percent.

Nampa School Lunch2
The Nampa School District is offering free lunches at 11 of its schools this year — under a federal program designed to cut paperwork and serve more meals in high-poverty schools. (Photo by Andrew Reed, Idaho Education News.)

So this year, Nampa is making lunch and breakfast available to all students, at no charge, at 11 schools. The district is using a new federal policy that is designed to cut paperwork, increase school lunch participation and remove the stigma from the public subsidy. The underlying goal is to make sure students are better fed and better prepared to concentrate on their classwork.

But not everybody is on board with the new policy. And the superintendent of one of the state’s poorest districts is taking a wait-and-see approach.

A complicated math problem

The federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision allows schools with high poverty rates to serve free meals to all students. Congress passed the law in 2010 — but 2014-15 was the first year Idaho schools could participate in the program.

A school qualifies for CEP if at least 40 percent of its students qualify for food stamps or state Department of Health and Welfare programs, or are classified as foster children, migrants or runaways. (These numbers are not interchangeable with the free and reduced-price lunch rates, which are based on household income alone.)

However, determining CEP eligibility only starts the process.

Even if administrators know that a school is eligible for CEP, they still need to know whether the free-lunch program will pencil out.

Here’s why: The federal government does not fully cover the cost of school lunch for all children. For families that normally pay full price for a lunch, that gap comes to 36 cents per meal. That’s what the districts have to pay back to the feds — even at a CEP school.
And that’s why districts have to make sure they save enough on paperwork and administration to cover the cost of universal free lunch. When a school or a district adopts the CEP program, parents no longer have to come in and fill out forms to apply for free or reduced-price lunch — and cafeteria staff no longer have to worry about charging some (but not all) parents for meals.

In theory, the streamlined process should cover the price of providing free lunch across the board. But if that doesn’t happen, the districts are on the hook to pay the difference.

As a result, Nampa has taken a slow approach to the CEP program. The district didn’t sign on in 2014-15, preferring to watch the rollout in other Idaho communities. And Nampa took a conservative tack this year, said Sheila Keim, the district’s director of nutritional services, The district limited the program to 11 schools with a combined enrollment of about 4,300, in hopes of making sure the first-year rollout pays for itself.

And that meant leaving some schools out, she said, even though they were eligible.

The first-year track record

In the Boise School District, CEP went so smoothly in 2014-15 that the district expanded the program for this year.

Lunch will be free in 22 schools this year, up from 15 schools a year ago.

A year into the program, Peggy Bodnar sees no downside to it. The Boise district’s food and nutrition services supervisor says CEP has performed according to plan: The district is feeding more students, and pushing less paperwork.

This is good for the district, she says. With more students taking part in the federal school lunch program, the service is more stable financially.

The human effects may be more profound.

Bodnar has seen parents — heading working-class households that don’t qualify for the conventional federal subsidies — “almost in tears” after learning their children would now get free lunch. And she’s seen kids going through the lunch lines who would otherwise steer clear.

“Taking the stigma away from it, we have noticed increased participation,” she said.

Boise was among 10 districts that adopted the CEP program in 2014-15, at least in their high-poverty schools. Four districts — Caldwell, Gooding, Plummer-Worley and Shoshone — adopted CEP at all of their schools. One charter school, Heritage Academy in Jerome, also adopted CEP.

The State Department of Education has no position about CEP; it’s up to districts to decide whether to take the leap, said Colleen Fillmore, the department’s child nutrition programs director. The state’s role is to verify the districts’ documentation, and make sure their applications are in order.

“In the end, it’s their decision,” Fillmore said. “If they choose to be on this, we want them to be successful on it.”

Unanswered questions

A few miles west of Nampa, in rural Canyon County, the Wilder School District is among the state’s poorest districts. In 2014-15, 93 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Wilder Superintendent Jeff Dillon said he looked at CEP, “and ran.” For the time being, he’s willing to wait and see how the program works in other districts.

While Dillon is watching the process unfold, Nampa’s decision has already drawn swift and harsh criticism from the local newspaper. In an Aug. 23 editorial, the Idaho Press-Tribune said the free lunch program seemed to double up on benefits for families receiving food stamps — while providing federal benefits to families that don’t need the help. “The idea of affluent kids getting free lunches while our nation lumps hundreds of billions of dollars onto its national debt each year is outrageous.”

Keim says she’s getting positive feedback from parents. Some, she said, were “tickled” to learn they won’t have to pay for lunches. Meanwhile, she is taking the criticism in stride.

“Of course, there’s anxiety with everything that’s new.”