Wichita Public Schools considering a free meals program for all students

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The Wichita school district is looking to participate in a program that would provide all students with free breakfast and lunch, regardless of their parent's income. Though a decision hasn't been made if the district will be involved with the program, they say the goal is to hopefully feed everyone.

According to Kansas Appleseed, a state anti-poverty nonprofit organization, about 20% of Kansas children are food insecure. That means they're unsure where they'll get their next meal.
It's the part of the day many students can't wait for, lunch time. But for some, it's a time they dread. "Sometimes they have food, sometimes they don't. but they are always living with some doubt if they are going to have food at the end of the day," said Benet Magnuson, Kansas Appleseed Executive Director.

After pilot run of a program called Community Eligibility Provision (a piece of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) in other states it's being offered nationwide. Wichita is eligible because at least one school has 40 percent or more of students who qualify for free or reduced meals.

"We recognize that not all our students are able to access a breakfast or a lunch ever day," said Darren Muci, Wichita Public Schools Operations Division Director.

This program aims to feed needy students but also reduce the stigma of filling out paperwork for the free or reduced meals. But Muci said they would still need to develop another form to identify poverty within the school. He said "we would still need in Kansas to have that other form completed so that we can identify funding for at-risk students."

The free or reduced meal applications not only help the school determine how much state funding it gets but families who qualify get reduced or waived fees for textbooks, enrollment, pay-to-play athletic fees and other services.

The school district has the ability to pick and choose schools in most need of the program but Muci is afraid this could create labels. He said "you run the risk of having schools identified as 'oh that's free food school,' potential for a stigma existing."

But those at Kansas Appleseed disagree. "This program isn't about stigma. It's about our community seizing this opportunity to really support our kids and supporting out schools," Magnuson said.

Other challenges the district faces with implementing this program, it could be costly on their part. The Wichita school district would have to pay the additional costs for schools with fewer than 62 percent of students who automatically qualify for free meals. "We would not receive a reimbursement from the federal government to cover all our operational expenses for nutritional services," Muci said.

Muci told KAKE News about 47 percent of the students in the Wichita district are "identified students" who qualify for free meals without the application.

Those at Kansas Appleseed say a program like this would have lasting impacts. Magnuson said "kids that come to school without eating breakfast are much more likely to go visit the school nurse during the day or do worse on a standardized test." But kids who have meals, "they're more likely to show up to school on time, more likely to have good behavior, good grades, do well on tests."

The school district has not made any decision yet. The deadline to participate is June 30th for the 2014-2015 school year.

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