Maureen Groppe and Chelsea Schneider, IndyStar Washington Bureau
There’s a food fight going on in Washington D.C.Rep. Todd Rokita has proposed a bill that would restrict access to free and reduced school meals at public schools.Rokita is focused on changing a portion of the program that allows some schools to pro Nate Chute/IndyStar
WASHINGTON — High-poverty schools would have a harder time qualifying for federal assistance to offer free meals schoolwide under a proposal by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indianapolis.
The bill, which a House committee will vote on Wednesday, would raise the share of a school’s students who must be receiving other government aid in order for the school to be eligible to provide meals to all students. Those schools would still be able to provide free meals to students who qualify on an individual basis.
Rokita said the change would target assistance to those most in need, and the savings would be redirected to other nutrition programs for school-age children. The savings would amount to about $1 billion over 10 years.
“We stick it right back into their school,” he said. “I think that’s a pretty creative way to lead on this issue without adding to our $19 trillion in debt.”
The change would affect about 120 Indiana schools — including at least 14 in Marion County — that serve nearly 58,000 students who would no longer qualify for a schoolwide free meal program, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
Indiana school officials using the program, known as community eligibility, said it has helped the families they serve.
“We know that there are more students that are eating, especially breakfast,” said Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools, which is feeding more than 21,000 students in schools that would have to go back to the old system under the proposed change. “It is a benefit that puts money directly back into families’ pockets.”
Sara Gasiorowski, director of child nutrition for Wayne Township Schools, with 11 schools participating in the program, said breakfast and lunch are important parts of the academic day for students.
If the program is rescinded, she said, “It would really, really be hard to go backward.”
Students qualify for free meals if their family income is less than 131 percent of the federal poverty level — about $31,800 for a family of four.
Students in families with incomes up to 185 percent of the poverty level receive meals at a reduced cost — no more than 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast.
Students can automatically qualify for a free or reduced-price meal if their family is already receiving certain other types of government assistance, such as food stamps. Otherwise, a student’s family has to show a school their income is low enough to be eligible.
When Congress reauthorized the school meal program in 2010, lawmakers allowed schools to offer free lunches to all students if at least 40 percent of their students automatically qualified for assistance.
Rokita wants to raise that threshold to 60 percent.
“Before you get reimbursed as a school for giving everyone lunch … let’s make sure a majority of them actually qualify for it,” he said.
Although a 40 percent threshold might sound low, it refers only to students who automatically qualify for subsidized meals, said Zoe Neuberger, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In schools that meet that bar, about two-thirds of the students would qualify if administrators checked household income levels.
Before the community eligibility program, about 70 percent of Fort Wayne Community Schools’ students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. But district officials think a number of other families were either close to meeting the requirements or chose not to fill out the paperwork to receive assistance.
Not having to process student applications or monitor eligibility status in the lunch line saves schools’ resources, advocates say. Per meal costs also can be cheaper through economies of scale by feeding more kids. And serving free meals to all students can remove the stigma some might feel by applying for a subsidy.
Still, not all schools that are eligible for the program use it. That could be because they won’t save enough money to offset the cost of feeding more kids, since the federal government doesn’t pick up the full cost of the meals for all participants. Or schools could still be monitoring the program, which has been available nationwide for just two years.
In Marion County, the schools now offering free lunch to all students are Vision Academy-Riverside, The Challenge Foundation Academy, Arlington in Indianapolis Public Schools and 11 Wayne Township schools, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Rokita said any extra paperwork required for schools going back to the old system would be offset with the flexibility his bill would give them on meeting the tougher nutrition standards set by the 2010 law.
About 60 percent of the more than 760,000 Indiana students who participate in a school lunch program receive a free or reduced-price meal, according to the most recent statistics available from the Food Research & Action Center.
Cynthia Hubert, president and CEO of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, said she’s concerned about any change that could make it harder for students to get fed at school.
“If the children can’t get it there,” she said, “the charitable and private sector can’t do enough to fill that gap.”
One in seven Hoosier households was “food insecure” in the three-year period 2012-14, meaning they had difficulty at some point providing enough food for all family members, according to the Agriculture Department.
Federal spending on child nutrition programs — the largest of which are the school meal programs — has more than doubled since 1990, even after adjusting for inflation. Reasons include population growth, higher reimbursement rates to schools and policy changes.
Spending could grow an additional 26 percent in 10 years because of expected increases in food prices and demographic changes, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall.
The savings from the change Rokita proposes would be spent on improving the summer meals program and increasing schools’ reimbursement rate for the breakfast program.
“When you’re getting a great deal, and you don’t have to do any paperwork for it, yeah, there may be some hesitancy to change,” he said. “But I am leading with a solution that solves a lot of their other problems. I’m just not doing it by adding to the debt.”
Neuberger, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said it’s a “false choice to say you have to make it harder for low-income kids to get meals during the school year in order to make those improvements.”
“We can make investments in all of the programs,” she said.
Email Maureen Groppe at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @mgroppe.