UPDATE, Sept. 13: Adds statement from Kent school district and information about Title I and Learning Assistance Program funding.
Five schools in Kent that were offering free meals to all students will no longer have the program this school year. Separately, in Seattle, United Way of King County has ended a grant for a breakfast pilot program in nine schools.
In the Kent school district, five high-poverty elementary schools had been using what's called the Community Eligibility Provision to provide free meals to all students. That means any kid could eat for free, even if the family did not qualify for a free or reduced-price meal.
The federal government established the program nationwide in 2014 as a way to eliminate stigma for students who receive subsidized meals, ensure all students have access to nutritious food, reduce paperwork for families and remove the need to track unpaid school lunch debt. The program is aimed at schools that have at least 40 percent of their student population identified for subsidized meals because of factors such as participating in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or getting food benefits.
Tara Aryal, who has a daughter in first grade at East Hill Elementary in Kent, said he appreciated the free meals.
“Last year, I didn’t pay anything,” Aryal said. “She ate the free meals – breakfast, lunch and everything.”
Officials with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said the Kent district opted not to reapply for the Community Eligibility Provision designation. The schools had originally received the designation in the 2015-16 school year and need to reapply every four years.
Kent officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment about why the district chose not to reapply, but the district posted a statement on its web site saying the decision was "tied to competing regulations for determining funding for schools under the Title I and Learning Assistance Program (LAP) regulations."
According to an OSPI bulletin, a district's federal Title I funding is not affected by having some schools participate in the Community Eligibility Provision because Title I dollars are mostly based on census poverty data and the cost of education in each state. But it can affect how a district ranks schools for distributing Title I dollars. As far as the state Learning Assistance Program, the OSPI bulletin said schools that use the CEP program should have families fill out a household income survey.
Aryal said he and other parents are now being asked to fill out applications for free or reduced price meals.
Crisann Brooks, senior director of family empowerment with the Refugee Women's Alliance, said her office already had one parent from the Kent district ask for help to fill out paperwork for free or subsidized school meals. She said she's concerned for families that won’t be able to navigate that process.
“Those families who are not connected to us or connected to an agency to ask for help – that might really be a barrier and those kids may not get the food that they need,” Brooks said.
The district said it's offering assistance to families to fill out the paperwork for subsidized meals and has the form in 10 languages.
The five elementary schools that will no longer provide free meals to all students are Kent, East Hill, Scenic Hill, Park Orchard and George T. Daniel. In a newsletter to families, East Hill Elementary said students' meal costs will be covered for the first 30 days of the school year.
SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT
In the Seattle School District, United Way is ending its grant that sought to increase the number of students eating school breakfast in some schools by making it free for students who would otherwise have to pay.
Lauren McGowan, senior director of ending homelessness and poverty at United Way of King County, said the grant was intended to help the school district establish a Breakfast After the Bell pilot program, but that the program didn’t result in that many more students eating breakfast.
“That’s what we were hoping to do with our funds was make it so that more students could eat breakfast,” McGowan said. “Unfortunately we didn’t see that happen at the rate that we had hoped for.”
Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson said the schools that were part of the pilot program were Aki Kurose, Beacon Hill, Concord, Dearborn Park, Lowell, Northgate, Olympic Hills, Sanislo and Wing Luke. Students from low-income households will continue to receive breakfast for free, Robinson said.
“We appreciate the partnership we have with United Way to help feed students,” he said. “While we will continue to offer breakfast, both before school and after the bell, we’re not equipped to move forward with some of the specifics United Way is seeking, like serving meals in classrooms.”
The district may consider that in the future, depending on the budget and “operational flexibility,” he said.