More than a dozen Clark County schools are eligible for a federal program that would allow them to feed every one of their students for free.
The Vancouver and Evergreen school districts combined have 17 schools that qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision, which is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Child Nutrition Program. The program, which serves about 300 Washington schools, is seen as a way to support low-income students.
Local district officials, however, say the program could come at a cost to other pockets of funding designed to serve low-income students. Districts may also be on the hook for covering the cost of meals, which would normally be reimbursed by the USDA or covered by families.
“We review this option every year but ultimately are dissuaded every year by the same limitations of the program,” said Brett Blechschmidt, Vancouver Public School’s chief financial officer.
Here’s how the current system works: Parents can opt in to having their children receive free- or reduced-price meals based on their family household income by filling out an annual form. Those rates are set by the federal government. A family of four, for example, qualifies for free lunch if their household income is $33,475 or less. School districts then apply for reimbursement of costs from the USDA for each meal they serve.
The checklist changes significantly under the Community Eligibility Provision. Using data from other public assistance providers, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, schools determine something called the identified student percentage. That rate encompasses low-income students receiving public assistance, as well as homeless students or students in foster care. Families would no longer need to fill out a free- and reduced-price meal application.
Schools or districts where 40 percent or more students qualify can opt to feed all students breakfast for free. The USDA, in turn, multiplies that percentage by 1.6 in an effort to cover other low-income students who may not be enrolled in other public programs and reimburses school districts based on that figure. A school where 40 percent of students qualify for services will be eligible to have 64 percent of its meals reimbursed, and remains on the hook to cover the cost of the other 36 percent. A school with an identified student rate of 62.5 percent or higher, meanwhile, will receive reimbursement for all meals.
Leanne Eko, director of child nutrition services at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said it can be an easy choice for schools with identified student rates of 62.5 percent or higher to enroll in the program. For those on the hook using general fund dollars or other money to cover the remaining lunches, the decision can be tough.
“It does pencil out really nicely as far as reimbursement,” Eko said. “But if you’re at 40 percent, you have to think about it.”
District officials also note that free- and reduced-price lunch rates can be used to determine eligibility for other programs. Take, for example, the state’s Learning Assistance Program, which provides supplemental money so school districts can provide extra tutoring or other programs to students scoring below grade level in standardized English or math tests. Schools where 50 percent or more students receive free- and reduced-price lunches get additional dollars, but under the Community Eligibility Provision, that data isn’t kept.
“We would love to avail our communities to the benefits of (the Community Eligibility Provision),” Blechschmidt said. “However, as currently constructed, the lost revenues are just too significant for us to pursue.”
Districts could have families complete an income survey in place of the meal application to determine eligibility, said Jen Misfeldt, director of nutrition services for Evergreen Public Schools. That form would be optional, however, which could create an “unrealistic representation” of how many families are actually low-income in any given school.
“It’s important we maintain financial stability of our meal programs and carefully consider their indirect influences, as well as impacts or benefits to all the households we serve,” Misfeldt said.