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Feds roll out school meal program

Area districts studying rules before deciding to apply

More Allen County students could receive free meals next school year through a nationwide program designed to help children in high-poverty areas.

The United States Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that eligible Indiana school districts will be able to offer free meals as part of the Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

In Allen County, 46 schools are eligible to apply for the provision including 38 Fort Wayne Community Schools, four East Allen Community Schools and four private schools.

School districts that apply for and are accepted into the program must agree to cover the cost of providing free meals to all students, including those students who would not be eligible for free lunches.

Districts will receive federal reimbursements for the cost of lunches going to students who qualify and can opt in or out of the program each year. Districts can also choose to participate in the program for some or all of the eligible schools.

“Schools would be required to serve free meals to all students, and if (students) don’t meet the criteria, the school district would have to absorb that cost using non-federal funds,” said Christina Herzog, child nutrition operations specialist for the Indiana Department of Education.

If approved, students in each of the eligible schools will receive a free breakfast, lunch and snack of fresh fruit or vegetable starting next school year.

For a school to be eligible, at least 40 percent of the total number of students in each building must qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Students who are homeless, runaways, migrants, Head Start students and some foster children are also counted toward the 40 percent, according to the USDA.

Schools with between 35 percent and 40 percent of eligible students are also included on the USDA’s list of qualifying schools.

USDA officials estimate that 242 schools in Indiana and more than 126,000 students could benefit from the program.

Families will not be asked to fill out applications to participate.

The deadline for school districts to apply for the program is June 30.

But is it feasible?

FWCS officials said they are examining the program before they make a decision about whether to apply.

“We need to figure out if it is financially feasible,” district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.

Fort Wayne Community Schools has 19,265 students who receive free lunches and 2,664 who receive reduced-price meals, Stockman said, and 8,697 students pay for lunches.

But the number of students who qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision isn’t the same as the number of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, Stockman said.

“Not all of our students getting free lunch have food stamps,” she said. “At (Indianapolis Public Schools) their number is high enough that the federal government will probably pay 100 percent; … here we would have to pick up part of the cost.”

Indianapolis Public Schools board members voted Tuesday to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision program.

East Allen County Schools spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said the district will not participate next school year.

“We kind of want to see how it’s going to pan out with other districts. Since it’s a new program, we want to sort of let the glitches get worked out before we decide what to do,” Kelly said.

“If it’s beneficial, obviously we want to join in. We want to be part of anything that’s beneficial for our kids.”

EACS has 3,735 students who receive free meals, 787 who receive reduced-price meals and 4,774 students pay for meals, according to the state Department of Education.

Timothy L. Johnson Academy, one of several nonpublic schools on the list, plans to take part in the program, Superintendent Steve Bollier said.

“We are still working through the details of the program requirements,” Bollier said in an email.

The academy has 301 students who receive free meals, eight who receive reduced-priced meals and five students who pay for meals, according to the DOE.

Concordia Lutheran School does not plan to participate in the program, said the school’s head cook, Beth Riley.

Horizon Christian Academy officials did not return calls asking whether the academy’s two eligible campuses – on Broadway and Wells Street – would participate.

The program will continue through the next four years as part of the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision.

In the past three years, the provision has been implemented in 4,000 schools in 11 states, according to a release from the USDA.