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MailTribune.com
  • Free meals program expands in Grants Pass

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  • While one Josephine County school district is raising prices for school lunches, the other just announced free meals for all students in its schools when classes start Sept. 2.
    The Grants Pass School Board approved its free meals policy in June, taking advantage of a new federal program passed by Congress in 2010, and the district announced details this past week on its website.
    There is no paperwork or application for parents to fill out, and all 5,700 students in the city's 10 public schools qualify regardless of their household income, district officials said. Some schools in the district already provided free breakfast.
    It's not readily known if the Three Rivers School District, which covers rural Josephine County and Cave Junction, will offer free lunches at any of its schools, though it has applied to receive federal reimbursement for lunches for four of its 15 schools. All but one school in the district automatically qualifies for the program.
    The Three Rivers School Board recently approved a 10-cent price hike for school lunches in all grades. Kids in that district will pay $2.20 for a lunch in the elementary schools, $2.50 for a middle school lunch, and $2.75 for a lunch at the high school.
    No mention was made at that time of the program the Grants Pass School District latched onto.
    The free meals are part of a federal USDA program known as Community Eligibility Provision, part of the Obama administration's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act now being phased in across the country after Congress passed the legislation over strong Republican opposition in 2010.
    This is the first year the program has been available in Oregon, said Michael Morris, supervisor for the Grants Pass School District's food and nutrition services. It is expected to last at least five years.
    Sarah Wofford, the mother of a fourth grader at Riverside Elementary School, said she's delighted to hear about the program.
    "It's pretty exciting," Wofford said, adding, "I won't have to worry about having money available for lunches."
    She said the program also is good for students whose families might otherwise be just above what previous free lunch programs considered low-income.
    "Some kids slip through the cracks that way," she said.
    According to information provided by the Oregon Department of Education, which administers the program, the intent is to improve access to free school meals in high poverty school districts, reduce stigma associated with free lunch program lines, improve nutrition and eliminate the burden on staff and parents of collecting household applications.
    Prior programs, such as the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, required household applications to be filled out by parents and processed through the schools.
    The federal program was successful in pilot programs across the country, according to information the U.S. Department of Education provided to the Grants Pass School District.
    During a two-year trial period, breakfast participation rose by 25 percent and lunch participation by 13 percent. Students in those schools experienced better test scores and higher attendance, and there were fewer administrative burdens, the agency said.
    Beginning in April, school districts in Oregon had the chance to apply for anywhere from one to all schools in respective districts. Grants Pass applied for all its schools, and met the requirements with each school.
    There are 197 school districts in Oregon. Of those, 29 districts already are approved for the program, said Crystal Greene, communications director for the state Department of Education.
    Two other districts are pending approval. One of those is Three Rivers, which applied for four of its 15 schools, Greene said, adding: "We were waiting for an additional piece of information, which we have just received and (Three Rivers' four schools) should be fully approved soon."
    The federal deadline to apply for the program was recently extended to Aug. 31, so Three Rivers could potentially still apply for its additional schools, Greene added.
    To qualify, a school needed to show that at least 40 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches, based on household income.
    The formula for federal reimbursement is multiplied by 1.6, which worked out for Grants Pass High School, which saw its actual student percentage of 37 percent increase to nearly 60 percent thanks to the multiplication formula.
    Other schools in the district had no problems meeting the threshold, actual or with the multiplier. The next lowest school, Highland Elementary School, had an actual percentage of 44 percent, which worked out to nearly 71 percent with the multiplier.
    So, why are many of the Three Rivers students going to be paying more for their lunches this year, despite the possibility of free meals?
    Greene said some school district around the state haven't yet decided to participate because, after looking at percentages for their schools, administrators worry they can't provide quality meals for the reimbursement totals they would receive.
    Three Rivers officials didn't respond to several requests for comment. Calls seeking clarification were referred to Debbie Breckner, the district's human resources director, who was out of town and not taking calls.
    Reach reporter Ruth Longoria Kingsland at 541-474-3718 or rkingsland@thedailycourier.com

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