By Celia Llopis-Jepsen
July 29, 2014
Thirteen USD 501 schools will be among the first in the state to offer free breakfast and lunch to their entire student bodies, with a boost of federal funds to do so.
The new U.S. Department of Agriculture program stems from a 2010 law passed by Congress and focuses on districts and schools with significant poverty levels. It began as a pilot in a handful of states over the past few years and is available in Kansas for the first time this year.
Superintendent Julie Ford said she is excited about the decision to participate.
“If our kids eat, they’re going to do better in school,” she said.
Child advocates and educators who support the program say it will ensure more children have access to nutritious meals on a regular basis, with benefits for their health and education.
“Topeka 501 should be applauded for taking a step toward reducing childhood hunger,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, CEO of Kansas Action for Children, which is encouraging eligible school districts to join the program. “We know that hunger affects classroom performance, behavior and learning. By offering meals at no cost, the district’s leaders have demonstrated a commitment to their students.”
Cotsoradis expressed hope that USD 501’s participation would serve as a model for other districts.
Some school districts across the country have been hesitant about joining the program, expressing concern about logistics, whether USDA reimbursements will cover the full costs, or about offering the program in some schools but not others.
Not all schools qualify for the program, and some qualify only for partial reimbursement from the USDA. Reimbursement levels are based on a number of documented poverty-related indicators, such as the number of students at a given school who are in foster care, are homeless, receive public assistance or have parents who are migrant agricultural workers.
Ford said the decision to join the program was a clear one for her district.
“We made a list of pros and cons,” she said. “We can only come up with one con.”
That, she said, is the concern that a child might have access to free meals at one school, but if he or she transfers to another, might lose that access.
USD 501 will qualify for partial reimbursement for the extra meals from the USDA. Administrators expect to cover the unreimbursed portion at no cost to the district because more students likely will eat meals at school, boosting the lunch reimbursement based on number of meals served.
Eligible school districts have until the end of August to decide whether to join the program. According to the Kansas State Department of Education, Topeka USD 501 is the largest district in the state to sign up so far. The department said Wichita USD 259 and Kansas City USD 500 plan to observe this year how the program plays out in Topeka and other places, and might join next year.
In addition to the 13 schools in Topeka, two schools in Hutchinson, one school in Goddard and the Kickapoo Nation School will participate this year.
The USD 501 schools that will join the program are all preschool, elementary or middle schools.
IN USD 501
■ Chase Middle School
■ Eisenhower Middle School
■ Robinson Middle School
■ Highland Park Central Elementary
■ Meadows Elementary
■ Lowman Hill Elementary
■ Pine Ridge Prep
■ Quincy Elementary
■ Ross Elementary
■ Scott Magnet School
■ Shaner Elementary
■ Stout Elementary
■ Williams Magnet School