Oregon OKs largest expansion of federal free lunch program

Photo: USDA

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers have approved the largest statewide expansion of the federal free lunch program, ensuring all students living up to three times above the poverty line will have access to free meals.

It's the first time a state has offered to completely take on school meal costs, which can often run tens of thousands of dollars for individual school districts. The move is expected to provide hundreds of thousands of students with free breakfast and lunch.

One in seven Oregon households is "food insecure," according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy , meaning that families have trouble putting food on the table and often don't know where they'll get their next meal.

At least 174,000 children have limited access to food, more than the population of Oregon's second largest city, Eugene.

"Hungry kids don't think about education nearly as much as having something in their stomach," said Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Democrat from Coos Bay who helped craft the legislation.

At least 62% of students attend a school with high federal poverty rates. These schools can get federal assistance to provide free meals to all their students no matter their income levels under the 2011 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a policy championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

But even though these schools may qualify for assistance, not all of them take advantage of it because of low federal reimbursement rates. Instead, they only provide meals to those living about two times above the federal poverty level.

Around a third of food insecure students in Oregon, however, live above that poverty threshold meaning they're ineligible for free meals, according to data from Feeding America .

Tim Sweeney, a superintendent in Oregon's impoverished South Coast, said that his district runs a deficit because it chooses to take on the cost of feeding all its students. Even with federal assistance, it costs around $25,000 a year to provide free breakfast and lunches, money Sweeney said could have gone to textbooks.

"Poverty is a huge deal here and so many students rely on schools to provide them with food and a warm place for shelter," he said. "Food service may not be a winning game, but we know it means the world to these kids."

Oregon will now be the first in the nation to pick up these school districts' school lunch tabs, allowing 761 schools across the state to provide free lunch and breakfast to approximately 345,000 students.

In the 484 remaining schools that aren't high poverty and therefore don't qualify for the federal program, the state will cover the cost to feed kids that live up to three times above the poverty level, expanding the qualifying threshold to capture more hungry students.

The meals expansion is tucked away in tax package for schools, a sweeping $1 billion annual investment explicitly dedicated to boosting student performance. The program, which will cost the state $40 million a year, will be paid for through a new half a percent tax on business.

Gov. Kate Brown signed the school funding tax package, but it's likely to be referred to the voters to decide in 2020, thanks to Oregon's robust referendum process.

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