Some school districts say they can’t afford new federal program to give free meals to all students

Many school districts are reportedly opting out of a new federal pilot program that provides free breakfast and lunch to all students attending schools where poverty rates are high. They say budget constraints, fear of losing other federal benefits, and the possiblity of having to raise taxes to maintain the program are keeping them from participating. Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois were the three states chosen to implement the program first.

When the U. S. Department of Agriculture announced the Community Eligibility Program in March, officials called it a way to eliminate red tape for school districts and “make it easier for low-income students to receive meals in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast program.” Districts would provide free meals to all students for four years, then claim reimbursement for them, as they do for students who already receive free or reduced meals, reports Heather Webb of the Salyersville Independent.

Webb reports that officials of the Magoffin County Schools officials said they are not participating because they want “see how the program works in the districts that do participate.” The reimbursement rate outlined in the program is less than normal rates, and in the county, it would cause the current rate of 86 percent to drop to 47 percent.

Of Kentucky’s 174 school districts, 102 are eligible for the program. However, only 18 of those eligible districts are participating, The Licking Valley Courier (which is not online) reported in its Aug. 11 edition. It said the Morgan County Schools declined to take part because they would have to pay 25 percent of the cost and feared they might have to raise taxes to cover that.

Bailey Richards of the Hazard Herald reported that schools who do not have more than 60 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch can still participate in the program, but the respective school boards will have to pay the difference to cover all students. Perry County Schools Food Service Coordinator Linda Campbell told Richards her district could not afford to pay that difference, which would amount to about $300,000 a year out of its general fund.

Hazard Independent Schools Supt. Sandra Johnson told the Herald that she feared her district would lose funding from other government programs, like Title I and Family Resource Centers, which depend on the exact number of students receiving free meals, if they could no longer keep track of those numbers.

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