Support free meals for Arkansas students

This is a special post from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance

The federal government is offering to pay for breakfast and lunch for all students in qualifying school districts starting this fall. All districts that qualify should want to participate, shouldn’t they? After all, we know that hungry kids can’t learn. Teachers report that students who eat breakfast at school are better behaved, more attentive, and make fewer trips to the school nurse. A recent study also showed that schools offering breakfast as part of the school day had higher attendance rates, better test scores, and improved graduation rates. There’s only one problem. Many Arkansas school superintendents are resisting this opportunity because they are concerned that they might lose state funding designed to support academic programs for low-income students.

According to the Arkansas Department of Education, 83 districts in the state qualify for the new school meals program referred to as the Community Eligibility Program (CEP). However, only five have applied. States determine which school districts qualify for CEP based on whether at least 40 percent of a district’s students rely on food stamps, are in foster care, are homeless, or are migrant students. If a school or district meets or exceeds this threshold, it will not have to collect the usual paperwork from parents to ensure their kids receive a free or reduced-price lunch at school. Reducing this administrative chore is a positive step, but a new problem is created: now the school has no certain means for parents to provide the income information it needs to apply for supplemental state funding available for academic programs to support low-income students.

The state-funded National School Lunch Act (NSLA) program provides a substantial amount of additional state money, over and above required per-student funding, for schools to provide academic help to low-income and at-risk students. Current state law bases the amount of state NSLA funding for each district on the percentage of free- or reduced-price lunch eligible (FRL) students enrolled there during the prior school year. There are three levels of NSLA funding: 90+ percent FRL districts receive $1,549 per student, 70 – 89 percent districts receive $1,033 per students and 70 or less percent districts receive $517 per students. So it is understandable why superintendents are hesitant to disturb that substantial source of funding for their districts. Legislation is needed to change this method of calculation, and we believe it is time to act.

Other states are also trying to figure out how to adopt the CEP, and feed more kids a free breakfast and lunch at school, without threatening the needed state funding for low-income students. One possible solution in Arkansas would be to allow a district to maintain the same state NSLA percentage for up to five years. During the five year period, districts could report student progress and the legislature could review what other states have done and assess what additional changes, if any, are needed here in Arkansas.

Regardless of the solution, the legislature should act during the 2015 session to see that an adjustment is made to encourage schools to participate in this federal program that costs the state nothing and improves students’ opportunities to learn.Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance ask you to join us in contacting your legislators to urge action. Tell them to make a finding in support of CEP in the state’s biennial adequacy study to be released November 1, 2014. Tell them you believe that kids who have enough to eat make better students, and that’s a good thing for Arkansas.