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More Iowa Schools Expected To Offer Free Meals

Phil Roeder
Last school year, 157 Iowa schools were enrolled inthe federal program that pays for meals at schools with high poverty rates among students. More are expected to enroll this school year.

As students head back to the classroom, dozens of schools across the state are preparing to offer free lunch and breakfast. A federal program called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) pays for meals at schools with high poverty rates. Last year 157 Iowa schools were enrolled. That number is expected to go up for 2019.

Source: Iowa Department of Education
Credit Grant Gerlock / IPR
Source: Iowa Department of Education

To be part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture program, schools must show that at least 40 percent of students are already automatically eligible for free lunch. Students whose families receive SNAP food assistance or temporary cash assistance count toward that total.

“And then there are some other categories like being migrant or homeless, and if they’re above 40 percent then they’d be eligible to participate in CEP,” said Patti Harding of the Iowa Department of Education.

Harding said the program streamlines the paperwork for providing free meals by making them available to everyone.

“All students in the school eat at no charge, so the parents are not paying for their meals,” she said. Based preliminary numbers, Harding expects more schools to offer free lunch this year, but at fewer school systems overall.

After providing free lunch at some buildings in the past, the Council Bluffs Community School District will provide free meals for all of its 9,200 students this year through CEP. That's uncommon outside of a few small, rural districts.

“We’ve always fed kids regardless of whether there was money,” said Lisa Stewart, director of nutrition services for the district. “But with everybody eating free meals you don’t have to worry about that anymore. It just becomes part of their day like going to recess or going to math class. They eat breakfast. They eat lunch.”

Stewart said, in prior years, close to 70 percent of students in Council Bluffs qualified for free or reduced cost meals but that system was heavy on paperwork for staff to certify those students and to monitor payment balances from others.

“The one thing that we don’t have to really worry about is unpaid meal debt, which is kind of a national crisis when you’re looking at the school lunch program and the school breakfast program,” Stewart said. “We still have an unpaid meal balance that we’re still going to actively try to collect on but we know that balance won’t get any larger.”

Some schools choose not to participate, even though they qualify. Harding said that’s often because the reimbursement rate is too low to make up their food budget.

According to the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, about 52 percent of the schools that were eligible in Iowa enrolled in the program in 2018, which was lower than the national rate of 64 percent. The program provided free lunch and breakfast to nearly 13.6 million children nationwide.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa