As universal free lunch program ends, hurdles return for some families | Community

Guadalupe Hernandez is confident that her first-grade student, Breyden, started the school year at Ellen Ochoa Elementary School in Tulsa knowing the alphabet, basic geometry and her five senses. So far, the single mother of three has been comforted by something else: the guarantee of free school meals.

The pandemic-inspired federal program funding free lunches for all students has ended, leaving Breyden and many Oklahoma students whose households are near the poverty line more at risk of going hungry during the school day. .

Although a separate federal program known as the Community Eligibility Provision allows the nation’s poorest schools to continue serving free breakfast and lunch, only half of Oklahoma’s 184 eligible districts participate. Some cite reimbursement rates that are lower than the cost of the meals.

Ineligible and non-participating districts are turning to free or reduced meal requests used before the pandemic, a process that comes with familiar stigmas for recipients and barriers to requesting parents like Guadalupe Hernandez, whose primary language is Spanish. As of the 2020–21 school year, 82.5% of Oklahoma’s English-learning students were economically disadvantaged.

Hernandez supports her family with an office cleaning job that brings in $1,100 a month — one-third of the maximum for an Oklahoma family of four to qualify for free school lunches. Still, she worries about not qualifying.

“I should find someone to watch my kids after school so I can work more – that’s all I can do, or find a way to work more while they’re in school,” she said in an interview conducted by an Oklahoma Watch interpreter. . “I don’t make a lot of money.”

California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont implemented free school meals for all students this year using public funds, and other states have pending legislation. Doing so in Oklahoma would require action by the state legislature.

Universal free meal waivers were one of the few pandemic-era programs aimed at meeting the needs of low-income families, said Chris Bernard, executive director of Hunger Free Oklahoma, a nonprofit to end hunger and food insecurity.

“We’re really doing a disservice by not keeping (programs like this) in place and it’s going to be harder on schools,” Bernard said. “It will be more difficult for families. And I’m not sure we can predict all the results of that yet, but in this school year, you’re going to see it.

Rita Gallardo is the CEO of La Cosecha, a food bank that provides groceries and financial assistance to East Tulsans. Of the 1,800 families La Cosecha serves each week — up from 400 before the pandemic — about 65% to 70% are Hispanic, she said. The end of the federal free school meals program for all students is increasing food insecurity in his community, Gallardo said.

Federal regulations require schools to translate any information about school programs and services for families who are not fluent in English. Public business schools in the northeast corner of the state have 26% Hispanic students and 16% English-learners, according to state data. It uses bilingual paraprofessionals to communicate with families about the end of the universal program.

With English language learners accounting for more than a quarter of its enrollment, Tulsa Public Schools has expanded back-to-school outreach efforts for middle and high school families, creating computer banks for free apps or reduced.

Families learning English might still be hesitant to apply because of a misunderstanding of how the information they provide will be used, said Clarissa Hayes, deputy director of the Food Research and Action Center. While attending free or reduced school meals does not impact a family’s path to citizenship, she said parents might still be worried.

The vast majority of Oklahoma students learning English are Hispanic. But in late 2019 and early 2020, the Food Research and Action Center and National Immigration Law Center conducted focus groups and found that Spanish-speaking families were less likely than other groups to participate in federal programs like school meals in because of concerns about their immigration. status.

“What we believe is that healthy school meals for all – universal meals, (Community Eligibility Provision), whatever you want to use – I think that’s a great avenue to help address some of those challenges,” said Hayes.

A possible alternative for low-income schools

For schools that meet certain requirements, some form of universal free lunch could serve as a way to ensure that no student goes hungry.

To qualify for the community eligibility provision, a school, group of schools, or district must have 40% of its students categorically eligible for free school meals. Qualifications include enrolling in food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and being in Head Start. In many cases, families still need to submit an application confirming that they are categorically eligible.

All schools in the Oklahoma City Public Schools District, where 43.8% of Oklahoma City Public Schools students are categorically eligible, have participated in the Community Eligibility Provision since 2017. Director of School Nutrition Services, Shonia Hall said compared to other federal options, the provision made the most sense because it made it easier for her staff to provide free lunches at all schools.

Hall said providing free meals to all students eliminated the need for them to enter their lunch number, allowing them to move through the queue faster. It has also simplified the lunch process for parents, who no longer have to fill out free or reduced lunch requests.

But the community eligibility provision is not a viable option for many schools. According to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, 184 districts are eligible to participate in the program, but only 94 of them have used the option. Hayes, of the Food Research and Action Center, said the decision often comes down to budget constraints.

Typically, schools receive reimbursements for each meal they serve, depending on whether the student is eligible for free, reduced, or paid status.

Reimbursement of the Community Eligibility Provision is based on a formula that identifies the percentage of categorically qualified students in a school or group of schools. This number is increased by a multiplier to find the percentage of meals that would be reimbursed at the free federal rate of $3.93 for lunch.

Meals outside of this percentage would be reimbursed at the paid rate of $0.37 for lunch, meaning schools with fewer direct-certified students could receive a much lower reimbursement than they usually would. .

Public Business Schools Superintendent Stephen Moss said 79% of students in his district are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but a much lower percentage are categorically eligible for free meals. This means that even if the district qualifies for the Community Eligibility Provision, participating would cost the district approximately $100,000 per year from its general fund.

Under a 2020-21 minimum teacher salary schedule, the district could also use $100,000 to fund two new teaching positions.

There have also been differences between the Oklahoma State Department of Education and school districts over who is eligible. State Department of Education data indicates that all schools in the City of Ponca Public Schools District are eligible for Universal Free Lunches, using SNAP data and school self-reported information. But district nutrition director Jeff Denton said he knows only two schools in the district are eligible.

Denton said he saw the benefits of universal free meals during the pandemic and is now an advocate for the practice to continue. But he said he’s not convinced the community eligibility provision is the answer for his district.

Many Denton students already qualify for free or reduced-price meals, but are not directly certified. So he said participation would reduce his district’s revenue by about $500,000 a year.

Hayes said schools across the country should try to increase their number of direct certifications by regularly collecting data from food assistance programs and other sources. But she said another way the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can become available to more schools is to lower the requirements for participation.

Across the country, 27 states are now part of a pilot program that directly certifies Medicaid-eligible students, but Oklahoma has not joined. In July, people aged 18 and under made up the largest percentage of Soonercare recipients.

The Food Action and Research Center also supports an update to national child nutrition programs that could lower the direct certification benchmark for schools and increase federal reimbursements, Hayes said.

“There are so many elements of equity and ensuring access for non-English speaking families, but we think wider implementation of CEP can really help with that,” Hayes said.

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