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Popular School Food Program Faces Threat

Legislation currently under debate in Congress could force schools to reapply in order to participate in free meal programs. (USDA)
Legislation currently under debate in Congress could force schools to reapply in order to participate in free meal programs. (USDA)
July 15, 2016

PHOENIX - Legislation pending before Congress could bring big changes to a school meal program affecting thousands of Arizona kids. Schools in high-poverty areas are now allowed to offer free meals to all students through what's known as Community Eligibility. Lawmakers are taking a break starting this weekend but could complete work today on a House bill
that claims to improve child nutrition by tightening the rules to qualify, increasing paperwork for both schools and families.

Jessie Hewins, senior child nutrition analyst with the Food Research and Action Center said if passed, the bill would force more than 7,000 schools serving 3.5 million students to reapply for Community Eligibility.

"Arizona would see about 88 schools currently participating in the program have to go back to collecting school meal applications, and the traditional school meal program," she said. "About 42,000 students are participating in those schools."

Supporters of changing the program say free meals should be given only to those who need them most, and the additional funding could be used in other areas, such as summer food programs.

Hewins said when schools offer free food to all students, they often see an increase in the number of kids eating breakfast and lunch, and are able to avoid calling attention to those who are lower-income.

"We know that schools that are able to offer free meals to all the kids, it really eliminates the stigma of the cafeteria," she added.

Zoe Neuberger, senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said there's a chance the bill in the House will be modified before it's approved.

"The administration doesn't support that change, so our hope would be that, as the legislation moves forward, the Community Eligibility provision would be dropped," she said.

The Community Eligibility provision is not part of the Senate version of the bill.

The full bill can be read online here.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AZ