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Mississippi school districts expand free lunch program

By   /   September 8, 2014  /   No Comments

Photo illustration by Steve Wilson

MONEY SINK: Individual applications are no longer needed for the National School Lunch program if your school qualified for the Community Eligibility Provision.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Well, there is and more kids in Mississippi are going to be receiving a benefit from the federal government’s National School Lunch Program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has changed the way schools and districts manage applications for the National School Lunch Program. The Community Eligibility Provision, which went nationwide this year, eliminates the individual application procedure and uses data from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families programs to determine a school’s eligibility.

If 40 percent of the school’s student body qualifies for free or reduced lunches, all of the students attending can receive free or reduced lunches.

Schools and districts have to apply to be considered for the CEP and 39 district applications were accepted by the Mississippi Department of Education to participate, either partially (only a few schools qualified) or in total (33 school districts had all of their schools qualify for CEP).

The new provision has been phased in over the last three years after the passage of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. With school districts being compensated by the USDA for each free or reduced lunch they served ($2.93 per free lunch), this could add up to an expansion of a program that cost taxpayers $11.2 billion in 2012.

According to a letter sent in January by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the education department heads in each state, the program would reduce administration costs with the elimination of individual forms, more children would receive “nutritious” meals during the school day and “creative meal service options,” such as “grab and go” kiosks, could be implemented.

Rachel Sheffield, policy analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, says the CEP is an expansion of the welfare system.

“It’s this idea that you’re trying to pull more people on to the welfare system,” Sheffield said. “Instead of helping those truly in need, we’re expanding the welfare system beyond to those who truly don’t need it. It’s particularly troubling in a time when deficits are so high. Our goal shouldn’t be to expand the rolls, but to help these families become self-sufficient.”

With the CEP, more school kids will be participating in the nutritional guidelines issued under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. School districts that have their lunches certified as healthy under the program receive a six-cent increase in their per-meal subsidy.

Participation numbers for Mississippi in the National School Lunch Program, as they have for the rest of the country, have fallen in recent years. Nationally, the USDA’s numbers are down more than 635,000 since 2009.

  • 2009 – 405,716
  • 2010 – 405,577
  • 2011 – 400,490
  • 2012 – 398,654
  • 2013 – 391,574

Despite a downward trend in the number of participants, the amount of spending on federal school lunches has risen. In 1947, the first year of the program, the government spent $70 million. That figure expanded to $565.5 million in 1980 and $6.1 billion by 2000.

That figure will likely go up with the CEP’s nationwide implementation.

“Based on the provision itself, if 40 percent is all that your school needs to qualify, that basically amounts to a 60 percent expansion,” Sheffield said. “If you’re offering free meals, that’s an incentive for people to take that benefit. If you have to choose between making your own lunch and getting one free, it’s hard to compete with free.”

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Steve Wilson is the Mississippi reporter for Watchdog.org. Beginning his career as a sports writer, he has worked for the Mobile Press-Register (Ala.), the LaGrange Daily News (Ga.), Highlands Today (Fla.),McComb Enterprise-Journal (Miss.), the Biloxi Sun Herald(Miss.) and the Vicksburg Post (Miss.) Steve's work has appeared on Fox News, the Huffington Post and the Daily Signal. His bachelor's degree is in journalism with a minor in political science from the University of Alabama. Steve is also a member of the Mississippi Press Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He served four-plus years in the United States Coast Guard after his high school graduation and is a native of Mobile, Ala.