Proposed federal budget could cut funding for school lunch programs

The U.S. House of Representatives’ version of the federal budget for this fiscal year could significantly shrink a program which has expanded free meals to public school students, especially in West Virginia.

The state Department of Education and the Food Research & Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-hunger nonprofit, say that could happen if the Community Eligibility Provision is changed. Under that provision, schools and school districts can serve free meals to all students — and be reimbursed for a majority of those meals — so long as 40 percent of students in the district automatically qualify for free meals.

Both agencies point to a House Committee on the Budget report, which, as one possible policy change, suggests a higher threshold of students to “better target program resources to lower-income households.”

And the state education department pointed to a video of a budget committee meeting in which a congresswoman asks, “Does the resolution assume any changes to child nutrition programs, like the school lunch program?” The brief response references a  threshold increase from 40 percent to 60 percent.

The budget bill, House Concurrent Resolution 71, which passed the full House earlier this month, doesn’t itself raise the provision’s threshold, but it would require the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to submit changes to lower the deficit by $20 trillion through 2027.

“Since a final budget has not been signed into law, I have nothing for you at this time,” wrote Michael Woeste, a press secretary for that committee, in an emailed response to questions about the bill’s possible impact. The U.S. Senate is expected to take up its version of the budget this week.

Michele Blatt, an assistant state superintendent in the education department, told the state Board of Education Thursday that increasing the provision’s threshold 60 percent would mean 337 West Virginia public schools would no longer be able to use it to offer free meals to all of their students, poor or not. That’s about half the state’s public schools.

The Food Research & Action Center calculated an even larger impact on the state: 438.

Crystal FitzSimons from the anti-hunger nonprofit said several factors automatically qualify students for free meals, like being in foster care or coming from families receiving food stamps. She said other children can qualify through an application process, but the percentage threshold for the provision doesn’t count those students. 

She said that with the provision, schools and districts that meet or exceed that threshold percentage of automatically qualifying students can, by choosing to simply offer free meals to all, avoid the cost of dealing with the free and reduced-price meal applications from students who don’t automatically qualify.

The provision uses a multiplier calculation to simply estimate the percentage of children, beyond the percentage of automatically qualifying kids, who would’ve qualified for free and reduced-price meals had the school or school system taken applications. Out of all the meals a school or school system then serves, the federal free meal reimbursement rate then applies to that total percentage. This lowers administrative costs while providing free meals to all students despite their income level.

“Community Eligibility helps improve participation within schools because it makes the playing field equal,” FitzSimons said. “It’s available to every child. There’s no stigma attached to participating the in the program.”

For three consecutive years, the nonprofit has ranked West Virginia No. 1 in the United States for school breakfast participation. About 84 low-income Mountain State children received free or reduced-price breakfast for every 100 who received free or reduced-price lunch in the 2015-16 school year, the last school year the nonprofit analyzed.

That’s well above the 73 per 100 ratio of the No. 2 state, New Mexico.

“In the 2015–2016 school year, many states with high rates of school breakfast participation benefited from wide expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision,” the most recent Food Research & Action Center School Breakfast Scorecard report states. “… In the 2014–2015 school year, the first year the option was available to schools nationwide, more than 14,000 schools participated. An additional 4,000 schools participated in the 2015–2016 school year, and with 2,700 more schools signed up for the program in the 2016–2017 school year, community eligibility is expected to produce further gains in both breakfast and lunch participation.”

Blatt said 46 West Virginia counties currently participate, 19 of them participate countywide.

State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine said he’s written a letter to West Virginia U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito about the issue, and the state school board agreed to send a letter as well.

FitzSimons said neither President Trump’s nor the U.S. Senate’s budget proposals include the threshold increase, which she said means the chances of the change “moving forward in this vehicle are not high.” She said the House also proposed the change as part of a 2016 bill.

“Nothing is guaranteed in this world,” she said. “… It’s concerning that (House Republicans) keep coming back to this, so I think people need to send a very strong message to Congress about how important Community Eligibility is.”

U.S. Senate Budget Committee Communications Director Joe Brenckle said Friday that he expects the full Senate to consider the budget “starting on Tuesday and most likely concluding late Thursday/early Friday.”

“We haven’t received a letter but will keep an eye out for it and be tracking this issue as the Senate turns to the budget,” said Capito spokeswoman Ashley Berrang.

“Many children in West Virginia rely on school lunches as their biggest meal of the day,” Manchin wrote in an email. “Our children should be focused on their school work and getting a good education, not worrying about where their next meal will come from. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I will continue to work to protect the critical programs that help the people of West Virginia, including the school nutrition program.”

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