More free lunch

After hesitation, more Colorado districts join federal program to give out universal free meals

A one-year-old federal program that allows school districts to offer universal free meals at some or all schools is growing in Colorado.

A dozen districts, most small and rural, are planning to participate in what’s called “Community Eligibility Provision” or CEP this year. The program, which no longer requires families to fill out applications in order for kids to receive free breakfast or lunch, launched with eight districts last year.

At the time, administrators in some eligible districts passed on CEP because of concerns it could jeopardize funding for at-risk students. A year in, that trepidation appears to have eased a bit.

CEP represents a shift from giving meals only to students who fall below the government’s income bar to all students in high poverty schools or districts. The goal is to increase access to school meals with the hope of reducing hunger and some of the issues that go along with it, such as spotty attendance or discipline problems.

Julie Griffith, program specialist in the state education department’s Office of School Nutrition, said CEP has been a good public relations step in the districts that have signed on.

“It is offering free meals to all students so there’s no barriers really,” she said.

“There’s no stigma attached…whereas maybe there used to be.”

Mostly rural districts in southern Colorado have confirmed participation in CEP for 2015-16.
Mostly rural districts in southern Colorado have confirmed participation in CEP for 2015-16.

In the 18,000-student Pueblo City Schools, administrators sat out CEP last year, but after much discussion this spring got the go-ahead from the school board.

Jill Kidd, nutrition services director for Pueblo City Schools, said in addition to making parents happy, she expects the program to increase meal participation by 5 percent districtwide and bring much-needed funding to her department. .

“I need refrigeration. I need upgraded electrical. I need ovens…I need new vehicles,” she said.

“There’s just not that kind of money in the district’s general fund to do those things, so this is an opportunity to get that kind of funding.”

The hitch in the giddyup

While CEP has the potential to achieve goals that food service directors strive for—feeding hungry kids and bumping up meal participation—it comes with a risk.

That is, the loss of millions in at-risk funding if districts can’t successfully transition from the old system of tallying low-income students to the new system under CEP.

The old system was based on counting free and reduced-price meal applications, which parents were required to fill out in order for their kids to receive free or subsidized lunches.

But under CEP, things are different. The application is gone, replaced by a similar form called the “Family Economic Data Survey.” The trick is ensuring that parents fill it out even though their kids get free meals either way.

Kidd said the possibility that parents won’t comply and the district will lose at-risk funding is the biggest con of CEP.

“The superintendent is still quite nervous about it,” she said.

Nevertheless, she said the district’s principals know the importance of collecting the new forms and there are procedures in place to ensure that it happens.

Low-income schools

Schools or entire districts are eligible for the CEP program for four years if 40 percent or more of their students are identified as low-income because they receive certain types of government benefits such as SNAP (formerly known as the food stamp program), or are classified as homeless, migrant or in foster care.

CEP districts
Continuing participants from ’14-15
  • Harrison-19 schools
  • Alamosa-districtwide
  • Centennial-districtwide
  • Moffat Consolidated-districtwide
  • Mountain Valley-districtwide
  • Sierra Grande-districtwide
  • South Conejos-districtwide

New participants for 2015-16

  • Huerfano-districtwide
  • East Otero-2 of 3 schools
  • Rocky Ford-2 of 3 schools
  • Pueblo 60-districtwide
  • Center-districtwide

Discontinuing districts

  • Mesa County Valley 51-1 school

This “identified student percentage” is typically lower than a school or district’s free and reduced-price meal rate.

For example, Pueblo City Schools, the largest Colorado district participating in CEP this year, has an “identified student percentage” of 61 percent. In contrast, 72 percent of its nearly 18,000 students were eligible for free or subsidized meals last year.

While many districts don’t qualify for CEP on a districtwide basis, they are allowed implement the program in select schools that exceed the 40 percent threshold. That, however, has not been widely embraced in Colorado.

In part it’s because it requires two different systems of data collection to occur simultaneously—the traditional meal applications and the family economic data surveys. While a combined form is now available, there are still two sets of requirements to navigate.

Only three of this year’s 12 CEP districts–Harrison, East Otero and Rocky Ford—are opting for partial implementation. (All three districts qualify for the program districtwide, but stand to benefit more financially if they do it at their highest needs schools rather than all schools.)

Griffith said the education department’s goal for next year will be to recruit more districts for partial CEP implementation. This year the focus was districts eligible for full implementation, she said.

The deadline for CEP adoption this year is August 31.


Kids eat free

Colorado could expand lunch subsidy to high school students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Bernadette Cole serves food to students at Prairie View High School in Brighton.

When Colorado expanded a school lunch subsidy to middle school students, the number of sixth- through eighth-graders eating lunch at school went up in districts across the state.

Twenty-sixth percent more middle school students ate lunch at school in the Greeley-Evans district, where a majority of students live in poverty, but even in the more affluent Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs, 11 percent more middle school students ate lunch.

For school nutritionists and children’s advocates, these kinds of results make the case for extending this same lunch subsidy to high school students.

“We know the co-pay is a barrier because of the large uptick in participation when it goes away,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The “co-pay” is the 40 cents per meal that families who qualify for reduced-price lunch — but who make too much money to qualify for free lunch — are responsible for. The federal government picks up most of the cost for these lunches, and since 2008, Colorado has covered the 40 cents for the youngest students, rendering those lunches free to their families. This program has gradually expanded, reaching middle school students in legislation passed last year.

A bill that passed out of the House Education Committee Thursday would cover the 40-cent cost difference for high school students, a longtime goal of advocates.

“The state of Colorado has been trying to ensure that kids in poverty have access to food for a decade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans district and a public policy and legislative consultant with the Colorado School Nutrition Association. “This is the final step.”

Miller said hunger affects children in school not just academically but also emotionally, with hunger even associated with higher suicide rates. Advocates have pushed to expand the state subsidy because participation in school lunch goes down as children get older, even as their caloric needs go up.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,630 for a family of four, qualify for free lunch through the federal program. Families who earn between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or up to $46,435 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced-price lunch. It’s children from that second category families who will benefit if this bill becomes law.

Bock said the vast majority of school food service agencies in Colorado have unpaid lunch debt that, under federal law, they can’t just write off. School districts either pick up the costs out of their general fund or try to collect from parents, which sometimes leads to the controversial practice of “lunch shaming,” in which schools serve less nutritious and appealing alternative lunches to students whose parents owe money.

Lawmakers started out wanting to ban lunch-shaming, but school nutritionists convinced them it would be better to have the state cover some of the extra lunch cost for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

When Denver ended the practice of serving “alternative” meals to families who hadn’t paid for lunch, the amount of lunch debt skyrocketed, with a large portion of it coming from families who had not signed up for subsidized lunches and might have the means to pay.

According to a fiscal analysis, Colorado plans to spend $2.2 million on lunch subsidies this school year. Expanding the program to high school students would cost an additional $464,000 next year, with that money going into school food service budgets.

pass the microphone

This Memphis senior was kicked out of three high schools. Here’s how he got on track to graduate.

PHOTO: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange
Despite what John Chatman calls a “really tough childhood” where he was often left on his own, he’s on track to graduate from alternative school G.W. Carver College and Career Academy this year.

In front of more than 100 people, John Chatman recalled the bullying he endured as a child for having a stutter.

Chatman was one of seven educators and students who took the mic at Chalkbeat’s February story storytelling night. The stories centered around school discipline practices, a topic we recently covered in this special report.

“Growing up in the area I grew up in, it’s hard to deal with that,” said the 18-year-old. “You’re an outcast. … It made me hate school, because I never could enjoy it. I may answer a question and stutter, [and other students would] get to laughing and cracking jokes.”

Kids stopped making fun of him in middle school when Chatman became a star middle school football player in Memphis — but the prestige that came with playing football disappeared when he was injured on the field.

“I took my injuries and replaced them with the streets,” Chatman said. “Throughout my ninth-grade year, I was starting to lose myself. … By 11th grade, I didn’t know who I even was.”

During that period, Chatman said he was kicked out of three high schools and eventually wound up at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school for expelled students, housed in former Carver High School.

“This school changed my life forever, Chatman said.

To hear more about how Chatman’s life changed, watch the video (or read the excerpt) below.

The storytelling night was hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The video was filmed by Gillian Wenhold for The Social Exchange, a pay-as-you-can public relations and content creation firm for nonprofits, and businesses owned by women and people of color.

My 11th-grade year was the time I decided I had to change. The change was when I finally got kicked out of school. Well, I’d been kicked out of school but this was the kick-out-of-school that kicked me in my back real hard and said you only have one strike left. If you mess this up, this is it. It’s over with. You’re not going to see the light of day. Due to that, I ended up going to Northeast, and it still didn’t get better. In fact, I’m going to tell y’all the transitions of my schools. It started at ninth grade at Central, couldn’t come back to Central and I had to go to East , got kicked out of East and went to Northeast. Got kicked out of Northeast and now I’m back at Carver.

I’ll tell y’all, this school changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for that school. It happened like this. There was a guy named Roger. We used to run together during the same time period. …

[During a presentation of past Carver graduates], an image of Roger popped up clear on the screen. It wasn’t up for nothing bad, he was on the road to making a six-figure [salary]. I was like, ‘This was the same person I used to shoot dice with?’… Now he’s living a life and I’m stuck here. I’m still doing the same stuff I’ve been doing and not getting no different result, and that’s called insanity… I took it, and I told myself if he can do it, I know I can.

Spillit, storytelling
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chatman speaks to a packed room during Chalkbeat’s storytelling event.