Schools move to implement free lunch program

Some school districts in Louisiana plan to offer free meals to all their students even though the state Department of Education has yet to give them the green light to do so.

East Baton Rouge Parish public schools announced Monday it will take advantage of a new federal initiative that allows public schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals to all students without families having to fill out individual forms.

Other interested districts include Morehouse Parish and the cities of Bogalusa and Monroe.

They’ve all been waiting for weeks for the state Department of Education to launch the application process for the initiative. Districts need state approval to receive full federal reimbursement.

Barry Landry, a spokesman for the state agency, said Tuesday he is trying to find out more information about the delay, but had nothing at present to add.

The free meal program was created as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and it goes nationwide during the 2014-15 school year. It is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA, though, is leaving to state agencies the task of processing applications from interested school districts.

USDA has extended the application deadline to participate from June 30 to Aug. 31, though some states, including Texas, are already processing applications from interested schools.

Some school districts across the country have held off pursuing the initiative because of concerns about losing funding from such programs as Title I, a federal anti-poverty program. Title I relies on income surveys parents traditionally fill out to qualify for subsidized meals.

Bill Ludwig, southwest regional administrator for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, said his staff met Monday with the state Department of Education to help speed up the process.

“Based on the meeting we had yesterday we feel sure that they are going to move this process forward,” Ludwig said.

“There are new processes that have to be put into place,” he added. “There’s new recordkeeping, things that they haven’t had to do before.”

In a July 21 letter to state Superintendent of Education John White, Ludwig notes that superintendents and school districts in Louisiana that want to participate have to first complete an “attestation” document. Yet, the state agency had yet to provide this document, say when it would release it or lay out an application timetable, a delay that prompted some schools to contact USDA with concerns.

“They are concerned that they will not have time to fully prepare for the changes (this program) will require before the new school year,” Ludwig wrote. “Some schools begin feeding students in less than a month.”

East Baton Rouge Parish’s first day of school is Aug. 11, less than two weeks away.

“School starts early here. We can’t wait that long,” said Nadine Mann, director of the child nutrition program for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Mann said her boss, Superintendent Bernard Taylor, called White directly to make sure the school system was likely eligible to participate before she made her Monday announcement.

Stephanie Weaver, supervisor of Monroe’s child nutrition program, said Monroe qualifies and she intends to take advantage of the program one way or another. She said she’s also spoken to directors of food service programs in Morehouse and Bogalusa and said they also plan to participate. She expects more will follow in their footsteps.

“There are a lot of kids that this will benefit,” she said. “Every child is on the same playing field.”

Thousands of children who in the past had to pay for their meals will now get both free breakfast and free lunch and many more could as well as the program grows. USDA has identified hundreds of schools in Louisiana that are eligible to participate.

A school or a school system qualifies for community eligibility if at least 40 percent of its students participate in the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or in other federal income-based programs. Children participating in Head Start, living in foster care, or who are homeless or migrant can also count toward that 40 percent threshold.