14 Sep

How to feed kids, without a side order of paperwork

We don’t tend to think that billions of dollars in education spending are balanced on a cheeseburger, or are reflected in the aluminum foil around a breakfast wrap.

But in a state where most of our schoolchildren now qualify for free or reduced-price meals, we need to understand that crucial developments in the educational process happen – or don’t happen – in the belly as well as the brain. We still need to make progress in this area, but as Oregon schools open this year, we’re moving a few fish fingers forward.

For three years, the national school lunch program has run pilot programs, in 11 states, for community eligibility. If a school, or a district, has 40 percent of its students automatically qualifying for free lunch and breakfast – by their families receiving food stamps or the students being involved in other programs such as foster care –the school can serve all of its students without charge.

No collecting applications from families who may not be great at filling out forms, no checking to see if the kid qualifies for his hot dog. A little less distraction from long division.

In every state where the program has been tested, it has grown every year. This fall, community eligibility has been expanded to every state. In Oregon, 253 schools in 47 districts, and six entire districts, are in the program, meaning thousands and thousands of Oregon students will have one less thing to worry about.

It’s all about readiness to learn, says Gitta Grether-Sweeney, director of nutrition services at Portland Public Schools, which has 25 of its 82 schools in the program.

“Just like they get free textbooks, they get free meals,” she says. “I’m very excited about it. It gets nutrition into more kids.”

Which can also produce something else.

“Being able to have meals at no charge,” says Heidi Dupuis, manager of school nutrition at the Oregon Department of Education, “encourages children to come to school.”

And in a state with a seriously destructive absenteeism rate, that can provide an additional serving of benefit.

Students aren’t the only people gaining from the program.

“One of the thing that makes school staff most uncomfortable is when a kid shows up and doesn’t have money,” points out Zoe Neuberger, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. “Nobody likes being in that situation.”

That means both kids who haven’t produced the required forms, and kids without the necessary cash. Many schools have some kind of stash of crackers or peanut butter sandwiches for that situation; community eligibility is a somewhat more complete solution.

The 40 percent threshold for entry into the program is just a fraction of the students who would qualify after going through the application process. According to Neuberger, a school with 40 percent of its students qualifying automatically would likely have about 82 percent of its students overall qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch – a statistic that would be familiar to many Oregon schools.

“It’s good for families,” says Grether-Sweeney about the program. “They don’t have to fill out the free and reduced-price applications. It also helps families that are just on the edge (of qualifying), and it takes away the stigma.”

The stigma of being on the free lunch program rises as kids advance through the grades, and three of the Portland schools involved are high schools. “The more kids eat at school,” says Neuberger, “the less stigma there is.”

The program also produces more kids eating breakfast, for more productive school mornings. In schools in three states (Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia) with two years’ experience of community eligibility, breakfast consumption went up 25 percent.

The CBPP estimates that more than 600 Oregon schools might qualify for the program, considerably more than the 253 the state Department of Education counts so far. Some may be waiting to see how it works – in other states, participation has increased in second years – others may be worried that they could end up owing the feds money when the calculations all work out.

A week into Oregon’s participation, the process seems to be working smoothly. And the Department of Education hasn’t been getting complaints from schools that staff members miss dealing with the forms.

“The Community Eligibility Program increases access to the meals program,” says Dupuis, “and it reduces the administrative burden at both the household and the school level.”

It provides students food and focus, and frees up time for the people running schools.

It seems to help everybody with their math.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/10/14

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