More schools are eligible for free lunch for all kids, but some say they can’t afford it

Federal program makes all children eligible for free lunch in low-mid income areas; but lower reimbursement rate near cutoff means those schools would pay

Several local schools will soon be eligible to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students for the first time, but some school districts who are newly eligible say the program doesn’t offer enough money to make the offering financially feasible.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month announced expanded rules for the community eligibility provision (CEP), which is the way schools are eligible to offer universal free breakfast and lunch.

Individual students can always apply for free school breakfast and lunch based on their family income level, but the CEP allows schools to serve meals to all without requiring all families to fill out a form. It is based on calculations of how many people in a school community use specific federal low-income programs, like SNAP (food stamps).

Until now, the school buildings who have been eligible to offer free breakfast and lunch to all are those that have 40% or more of their students participating in certain income-based federal assistance programs. The expanded eligibility would reduce that threshold to 25%.

“Increasing access to free, healthy school breakfast and lunch will decrease childhood hunger, improve child health and student readiness, and put our nation on the path to better nutrition and wellness,” said U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack.

In 2020, the federal government expanded the free school lunch program to all schools during the COVID pandemic. The program ended before the 2022-2023 school year began, but some argued bringing back a version of that universal program would help millions of school kids get healthier meals during the school day.

According to data from the Ohio Department of Education, some of the local school buildings that are expected to be newly eligible under the rules include, in Kettering, Orchard Park Elementary, Van Buren Middle School, Fairmont High School, Southdale Elementary, Prass Elementary and Oakview Elementary; in Miamisburg, Mark Twain Elementary, Medlar View Elementary, Miamisburg High School and Mound Elementary; and in the Northmont school district, the middle and high school would qualify.

Other districts with some new qualifying buildings would include Franklin, Centerville, Lakota, Troy and more. Individual buildings would qualify based on their statistics, not districtwide statistics. Buildings who enroll in the program have to commit to it for a four-year period, according to USDA.

But while more schools are newly eligible for federal funds, it’s a complicated calculation to determine how eligible schools are reimbursed for those free meals. The different calculations mean some schools have found it’s not financially feasible to try to offer universal free meals.

Montgomery County Educational Services Center assistant superintendent Amy Anyanwu said currently, only schools who have a rate of 62.5% or higher of students who qualify would be reimbursed at 100% of the cost of meals. According to ODE data, the Dayton and Springfield school districts, as well as some local charter schools, are above that marker, while Trotwood, Northridge and others are just narrowly below it.

For the rest of the districts, including the newly eligible ones, they are only partly reimbursed for those meals. The district has to absorb the remaining costs.

For Northmont schools, spokeswoman Jenny Wood said it is unlikely the newly eligible Northmont schools will be able to take advantage of the offer, because it doesn’t make financial sense for the district.

“It is not financially viable for districts to enter into a CEP unless their percentage is 60% or higher,” Wood said. “The short answer is no, Northmont will not be participating in the CEP.”

Kettering spokeswoman Kari Basson said there won’t be any additional money behind the expansion.

“Kettering’s food and nutrition department is proprietary, in that it operates independently and does not receive general fund dollars to operate,” Basson said. “The department would not be able to remain financially independent if we expanded our free and reduced meal program. We are looking at this new information from USDA in more detail, but at this time, we are not able to expand our program.”

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