School district officials are closely watching a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that advocates say could eliminate automatic free lunch and breakfast for more than 10,000 students at 17 public schools in Fayette County.
If House Resolution 5003, the child nutrition reauthorization bill introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., becomes law, there would be stricter rules for schools to qualify for community eligibility, an option within the national school lunch and breakfast programs that allows high-poverty schools to provide free meals to all students without the need for applications, said Zoe Neuberger, senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.
In Kentucky, 343 schools serving 190,721 children no longer would be eligible to use the provision and 171 would lose the chance to use it, Neuberger said. She said the legislation would take effect by the end of the 2017-18 school year.
The bill will be put to a vote soon by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which includes Rep. Brett Guthrie, a Kentucky Republican whose 2nd District includes Garrard and Boyle counties and part of Jessamine County.
Currently, if more than 40 percent of students in a school get food stamps, are homeless or are in foster care, all students in the school qualify for free meals without parents having to fill out applications. Under the legislation, the threshold would be raised to 60 percent.
7,022number of schools nationwide that provide free breakfast and lunch to all of their students
Neuberger said that in its current form, the provision “takes a burden off schools that already have plenty of challenges.”
Schools devote fewer resources to paperwork and devote more resources to better meals or educational priorities, she said.
“We will be watching this legislation closely as it moves through the House of Representatives,” Fayette schools spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said.
“We have seen tremendous benefits for our students in the two years the community eligibility provision has been available in the Fayette County Public Schools,” she said. “We currently have 36 schools feeding 19,501 students a healthy breakfast and lunch daily under this program. If this legislation were approved, it would strip this service from more than 10,000 students at 17 schools.”
Those schools, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, are Bryan Station High, Bryan Station Middle, Carter G. Woodson Academy, Dixie Elementary Magnet, Fayette County Preschool Center, Glendover Elementary, Julius Marks Elementary, Lansdowne Elementary, Lexington Traditional Magnet, Meadowthorpe Elementary, Southern Elementary, Southern Middle, Squires Elementary, Tates Creek Middle, The Learning Center at Linlee, The Stables and Winburn Middle.
Schools cover the costs of the extra meals with administrative savings, or non-federal funds, the center said.
Nationally, 7,022 schools that use the community eligibility provision to simplify their meal programs and improve access for low-income students would have to reinstate applications and return to monitoring eligibility in the lunch line within two years. These schools serve nearly 3.4 million students. An additional 11,647 schools would lose their chance to implement the program, Neuberger said.
She said more than one-third of the affected schools are in just five states: Kentucky, New York, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
Rokita, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, said in a statement that the legislation “in no way” changes “who is eligible to receive nutrition assistance.”
“Every child who is eligible to receive assistance today will remain eligible for assistance under this legislation. The proposed reforms to the community eligibility provision simply target assistance to those who need help the most, while continuing to provide all eligible students access to healthy meals,” the statement said.
A member of Rokita’s office staff said he could not elaborate on the statement.
Guthrie, meanwhile, “is still reviewing the legislation and has spoken with a number of constituents at roundtables on child nutrition issues prior to the bill being released and in the last few weeks to hear their thoughts and concerns,” spokeswoman Maria Kim said.
Kim did not directly address how Guthrie would vote on the bill, saying only, “Congressman Guthrie believes that we need to protect access to school meals for those students who rely on them the most.”