Kansas City, Hickman Mills school districts to give all students free meals

07/23/2014 6:23 PM

07/23/2014 10:38 PM

No more will unknown numbers of hungry children go missing from lunch lines in the Kansas City and Hickman Mills school districts.

Beginning this August, both districts will take advantage of a new federal provision that will give every one of their students free breakfast and lunch.

That will include the child whose family was unaware or embarrassed to apply for assistance.

It will include the high school student who would rather go hungry than risk classmates learning of his need.

It will include the child, in line with no money in her pocket, whose family did not quite qualify for assistance and who let her lunch account fall below zero.

Qualifying districts with high percentages of students receiving food assistance can trade their loss in revenue for savings in the expensive paperwork and bureaucracy in managing lunch accounts — and simply feed all kids the same.

“This is huge,” said Valerie Nicholson-Watson, president and CEO of Harvesters. “I am so thankful both districts have moved forward with this … simply feeding hungry children.”

Ninety percent of the students in the Kansas City Public Schools qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and 86 percent in Hickman Mills.

Nutrition programs in the two districts, and all other districts, strive to get assistance to all families who need it and to make the service as discreet as possible when children are passing through the lunch line.

But it’s not perfect, and too many children were caught in uncomfortable circumstances, said nutrition directors in both districts.

Students going through the lunch line typically plug in an identification number when they reach the cashier. The cashier’s machine quietly notes the student whose meal is free, and it notes the account balance of the student who pays. Many times, districts have children whose families owe money come through the line.

“Our policy has been to make sure everyone eats and then try to collect from parents,” said Leah Schmidt, who directs nutrition services for Hickman Mills. “We’ve had some children with $200 or more (past due) on their accounts.”

“All my staff are thrilled they won’t have to be asking for money,” Schmidt said.

More children will be eating the lunch line’s healthy meals, said Kansas City’s nutrition director, Ellen Cram.

“This takes away the burden of the applications and any overt identification,” she said. “Everyone can feel comfortable going through the line, with no stigma.”

Other districts in the area are taking a look at using the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision. But districts with a more significant number of paying students, especially if many are selecting extra a la carte items, are finding it harder to make the provision financially feasible.

In Jackson County, research shows, one in five children is considered to be “food insecure,” living in conditions where meals are irregular or unreliable, Nicholson-Watson said.

That equates to some 33,700 children, and more than one-third of them are in families who are struggling but who do not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, she said.

Research shows that with good nutrition, children miss fewer days of school, have fewer discipline incidents and perform better.

“This is a foundational part of a student’s well-being,” Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said. Many of the children in the district “are counting on us for their breakfast and their lunch. This is a powerful program.”

The federal nutrition services are managed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Community Eligibility Provision was established as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. It is the same act that has established many healthier food guidelines, including whole-grain bread requirements, also taking effect this school year.

According to the USDA, statewide in both Kansas and Missouri, one in 10 households with children is considered food insecure.

About 52,000 students live in Kansas districts that are eligible for the new provision, and 150,000 live in eligible districts in Missouri.

In the Kansas City, Kan., school district, “we are currently in the process of investigating it and determining whether or not it will make sense for us,” chief of staff David Smith said.

The Center School District is exploring its options, spokeswoman Kelly Wachel said. Some districts, including Independence and Raytown, are taking advantage of a second provision that allows individual schools to offer free breakfast to all students.

All eligible school systems should carefully consider choosing the provisions, weighing the benefits against the revenue loss, said Darlene Barnes, the regional administrator of the USDA’s food and nutrition service.

“Schools have fewer administrative burdens,” she said, “and students have increased access to free, healthy school meals with no stigma, and spend less time in cashier lines and more time eating.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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