New federal program offers free lunches to all students in qualifying school districts; Baton Rouge is on board, but others ‘wait and see’ _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Students at Broadmoor Middle Magnet School go through the lunch service line Monday. The cafeteria staff serves about 400 students each day.

Erasing differences between rich and poor students, schools throughout Louisiana are offering free meals to all children.

More than 300 schools have adopted a federal program for high-poverty school districts since it became available this school year. The largest school district to sign up for the free-meals-for-all students program is the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, the second-biggest district in Louisiana and home to 80 of the participating schools.

Participating food service directors are reporting a variety of benefits: more children eating more meals, less time and money spent processing paperwork and hungry children no longer denied meals because they can’t pay.

“Love it, love it, love it, love it!” gushed Stephanie Weaver, supervisor of Monroe’s child nutrition program. “There is no stigma. Everyone’s on the same playing field. No one’s different. No one cares.”

Nearly half the schools in Louisiana don’t qualify at all, a category which includes all schools in Central and Zachary. That’s because less than 40 percent of their children qualify for income-based federal programs being used as proxies for traditional free and reduced-lunch eligibility. The biggest proxy is food stamps, known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

About a third of the state’s schools, though, do qualify to serve free breakfast and lunch for all, regardless of family income, but are holding out from signing up for the program anyway.

Holdouts include East Feliciana, Iberville, St. Helena and West Baton Rouge. In a similar vein, Ascension, Livingston and West Feliciana parishes don’t qualify as a whole, but collectively, they have 17 individual schools that do, and yet they, too, are staying out.

The holdout schools, 504 statewide, are taking a wait-and-see-how-it goes first before diving in.

The prime source of concern among the holdouts has been the prospect of losing money. Free and reduced-price lunch numbers drive funding decisions for an array of federal and state programs.

Switching to new methods to measure poverty and qualify for those programs has provoked worries that school districts will look less poor on paper and receive less money as a result.

John Dupre, director of the food nutrition program for the Louisiana Department of Education, said such concerns have thus far proven unfounded. The federal government, which is pushing free meals for all, has given schools many alternatives to free and reduced-lunch numbers and promised that schools will receive funding at current levels or better.

“You won’t go down, so you can only go up,” Dupre said.

Consequently, Dupre said, he expects many holdout districts will come on board in time for next school year; the deadline to apply is June 30.

“We are real hopeful that because we had a good year and a good response we can be very attractive to folks that were on the fence,” Dupre said.

Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food nutrition and consumer services with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is trying to persuade qualifying schools and districts to try out the program, which is known as the Community Eligibility Provision. Worries about losing federal funding, particularly from the biggest federal source of school support, the anti-poverty, federal Title 1 program, have so far not been borne out, he said.

“What we’ve heard from some schools is that it doesn’t inadvertently affect their Title 1 funds,” Concannon said.

Free meals for all children have other benefits that schools need to consider.

“It supports the school mission: fewer absentees and fewer visits to the school nurse, fewer headaches because of the kids who didn’t eat,” Concannon said.

A provision of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, CEP was piloted in 10 states and the District of Columbia before it went nationwide for the 2014-15 school year. Instead of families filling out income eligibility forms to prove they should receive a free meal, CEP allows schools to mine databases for other income-based federal programs to sign children up directly for free meals, a process the feds call “direct certification.”

Children participating in Head Start, living in foster care or who are homeless or migrant also count.

A school or school district is eligible to take advantage of CEP if at least 40 percent of their children qualify for free lunches. If 62.5 percent or more do, then the federal government picks up the entire tab.

Even where the program is fully paid for by the federal government, a handful of Louisiana school districts have opted out.

Kelli Joseph, superintendent of rural St. Helena Parish schools, said she wasn’t aware of CEP until last summer when she saw the news that East Baton Rouge Parish was participating. But she held off after her food service director told her free meals for all would cost St. Helena $25,000 more than current spending. Joseph said she plans to revisit the matter before the June 30 application deadline.

“If it’s to our advantage, we’re definitely going to do it,” Joseph said. “We need to work the numbers and see if that’s true.”

School districts not fully funded have tougher calls to make.

For instance, only about 50 percent of Caddo Parish students are directly certified via food stamps and other means. That works out to 80 percent funding by the federal government. If Caddo took the federal money, it would have to offer meals to all children and would have to pick up the 20 percent difference. It couldn’t offset its costs as it has in the past by charging for breakfast or lunch.

Deborah Harris, the parish’s director of child nutrition, said that when she crunched the numbers, CEP ended up being too costly.

CEP, however, allows districts to make free meals available to all at individual schools that qualify and exclude ones that do not. For instance, Orleans Parish is offering free meals to students at all 19 schools. Only three schools, Audubon, Lusher and Ben Franklin, all charter schools, are not participating.

If Caddo did something similar, at least 47 of its 64 schools could offer free meals to all.

Harris, however, said she has a philosophical problem with selecting some schools to benefit from free meals for all, while kids at other schools would still have to pay.

“I believe that we should have universal meals period,” she said. “Children are required to be in schools and they should be able to eat without being charged.”

Wes Watts, superintendent of West Baton Rouge Parish schools, offered a similar rationale for not offering CEP at six of its 10 schools. He said he’d hate to create divisions between the less affluent Port Allen schools that qualify for CEP and the more affluent schools around Brusly that do not.

But there are others in the area that signed up for the program, including Pointe Coupee Parish and the city of Baker. A number of charter schools in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans are also on board.

East Baton Rouge Parish public schools were shy of full funding, too, but close enough for Nadine Mann, director of child nutrition, to justify giving it a try. Consequently, she was able to provide free meals to 10 schools that would not have qualified individually, schools like Shenandoah Elementary and Baton Rouge Magnet High School.

Mann said she is serving almost 4 percent more breakfasts and 8 percent more lunches this year compared to last and is doing better overall financially.

“You are getting so much more from the reimbursement of the free meals,” she said.

Mann said the federal government is allowing some school districts to dig through Medicaid databases to find more eligible children. The more ways schools can directly certify children, the more schools will adopt free meals for all, she said.

She said she had hoped even more children would be eating meals this year, but new federal restrictions based on schools providing healthy meals likely have led some children, particularly older ones, to avoid eating.

“There’s no salt, and it doesn’t taste as good, so it’s not what they’re accustomed to,” she said. “Hopefully, over time, they will acclimate themselves.”

Mann said she’s wanted universal meals for decades — “I just pushed, pushed, pushed and pushed for this,” she said. She thought some parents who could pay would insist on continuing to pay but said no one has so far. She said she thinks people are beginning to see it as a benefit of public education.

“It’s a benefit that they don’t have to pay for, like a bus ride or a textbook,” she said.