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School meal changes could cost Central Point

Changes to meal services at four Central Point schools may not be felt much by students, but the school district’s nutrition budget is bracing for a hit.

Central Point Elementary School, Hanby Middle School, Mae Richardson Elementary School and Jewett Elementary School will no longer participate in a federal program that guaranteed partial or total reimbursement to the district for meals served free to all students. For the past four years, parents have not had to apply for their children to receive their meals for free.

“We’re going into uncharted territory,” said Anne Leavens, nutrition services supervisor for the school district.

The impact of the change could be two-fold: Parents whose children don’t qualify for assistance will, starting in October, see charges begin to stack up for any meals their child receives.

For the school district, however, the loss of automatic federal reimbursement has put Leavens and the rest of the nutrition department in limbo as they wait to see how many parents will wind up paying for meals their children still are guaranteed to receive at the schools.

“My budget for the first time ever does not look good for the coming school year,” Leavens said. “We’re kind of in a holding pattern.”

Some parents’ track record of paying for their kids’ school meals isn’t great. Since the Oregon Legislature in 2017 passed what was often called the “lunch-shaming” bill, which prohibits school employees from contacting students about payment for meals, school districts have seen bad debt catapult.

Central Point is one of many school districts across the state that has seen that happen.

In June 2017, before the lunch-shaming bill went into effect, meal debt district-wide was $3,640. It rose to $8,653 in June 2018. This past June, it hit $19,471 — a 125% increase in a single year.

Spencer Davenport, the district’s chief financial officer, said he expects that number to grow unless state rules change.

“The good thing here is that we are feeding hungry kids,” he said in a text message. “However, as the old saying goes ... there is no such thing as a free lunch, and these unpaid debts ultimately take money out of the classroom.”

School meal services operate with money that is separate from the general fund. A last resort for the school district is to funnel general fund dollars over to pay off the meals debt.

Leavens said Central Point has not reallocated money from the general fund.

Under programs such as the Community Eligibility Provision — the program ending at Jewett, Mae Richardson, Hanby and Central Point Elementary — the federal government reimburses schools fully for some of the meals, and partially for the remainder.

School districts and individual schools can participate in the Community Eligibility Provision program, which is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only if at least 40% of their student population meets assistance criteria.

Students become eligible for free meals if they are considered homeless by the federal definition, are in foster care or are part of a migrant family, for example. If they receive other food assistance benefits — whether through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations — they also qualify for free meals.

The USDA through the Community Eligibility Provision then calculates the percentage of a student body that qualifies for free meals, multiplies it by 1.6, and pays that amount of students’ meals fully.

The remainder of meals are reimbursed partially, varying by district. In Central Point, that’s about 84 cents per meal, with the district absorbing the rest of the cost.

The four Central Point schools’ student populations do not meet the 40% eligibility requirement this year, Leavens said.

Sams Valley and Patrick Elementary schools, however, will still be able to serve free meals school-wide.

Kacie Harmon, president of Jewett’s PTO, said in a Facebook message it is “very unfortunate” that the school no longer qualifies for the program, but didn’t respond to additional questions about parent responses to the changes.

Parents will have to fill out applications for the coming school year for free or reduced-price meals at the four Central Point schools that will no longer offer free meals to all after a 30-day grace period. Information about that can be found at https://bit.ly/2P7AQ5m.

Leavens said she plans to look into reapplying for the program next year to reinstate the federal reimbursement.

Additional funding from the Student Success Act, passed by the Legislature this year, will also help, she said.

The Mail Tribune reached out to the Medford and Eagle Point school district to ask about meals debt and potential changes to its list of schools participating in CEP. Medford reported no changes to its list of schools, and Eagle Point did not respond.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

In this Mail Tribune file photo, Mae Richardson Elementary kindergarten students Addison Sakaraida, left, and Daisy Raya eat lunch made in the school’s kitchen. Mae Richardson is one of four Central Point schools no longer eligible for a federal program offering free lunches schoolwide.