Numbers game: For some schools, math doesn't work for offering free meals, despite being eligible

·5 min read

Aug. 4—Editor's note: The Kokomo Tribune is previewing the start of the upcoming school year with a collection of stories highlighting issues and new initiatives at schools in Howard, Miami and Tipton counties.

With most parents and students paying for school lunch again, there are some schools that could take advantage of an underused option to provide free meals for all students.

There's just one hang up, though. It's entirely a numbers game, and for at least two area schools, the math doesn't add up.

Kokomo High School, Taylor School Corporation and Maconaquah School Corporation (not including the high school) are all eligible for a community eligibility provision (CEP), according to the Food & Research Action Center (FRAC), a national anti-hunger organization.

Any school corporation or school building where at least 40% of students are automatically qualified for free school meals can receive a CEP distinction.

Students who automatically qualify for free meals include those whose families are on SNAP, are homeless, in foster care, migrant or are enrolled in Head Start. The 40% mark does not include students who need to apply for free meals.

Schools that qualify for a CEP can serve free meals to all students, regardless of income. No applications are needed. Schools are reimbursed a percentage of meals served. The reimbursement formula is the percentage of students automatically qualified multiplied by 1.6.

So, if a school has 45% of its students qualified, it would be reimbursed for 72% of meals served.

The 1.6 multiplier is based on the assumption that for every 10 students automatically qualified, another six students would qualify with an application.

Eligible but not eligible enough

The higher percentage of students automatically qualified, the higher the reimbursement rate. Therein lies the issue for some CEP-eligible schools — not enough qualified students.

This is the case at both Kokomo High School and Taylor School Corporation.

Kokomo High School had 43% of students automatically qualified for the 2021-22 school year, according to FRAC's data base.

Michelle Cronk, business director for Kokomo schools, said the reimbursement rate isn't high enough to break even.

A school district's food service budget is self-sustaining. Most Indiana schools participate in some United States Department of Agriculture program that reimburses a portion of meals served.

The reimbursements cover basically all costs, including food and staff. Food service budgets must break even.

"School nutrition directors are under a tremendous amount of pressure to break even," said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for FRAC.

The rest of Kokomo schools are CEP-certified, and the designation was renewed for another four years Wednesday. With 59% of students qualified, the reimbursement rate is 94.4%.

It's right around that 60% mark where a CEP works best, according to Paula Bolin, Taylor's food service director.

"Basically, if it's not high enough, you will lose money," she said.

Taylor easily qualifies for a CEP with each of its three schools. Percentages range between 46% and 56%. Even approaching 60%, the math doesn't work, Bolin said.

"It's really not high enough yet," she said. "I think we are moving in that direction ... but we aren't there yet."

Bolin compared the situation to a double-edged sword. On one hand, free meals for every student is a positive, however, being able to do so indicates a high rate of poverty.

"We don't really want that, but if we get to that point, we definitely will do the program," Bolin said.

FitzSimons said the predicaments for KHS and Taylor are not unique. It may explain why there are hundreds of schools nationwide that are eligible but don't have a CEP.

Less than 41% of eligible Indiana schools had a CEP for the 21-22 school year, one of the lowest rates in the country.

FitzSimons said FRAC is lobbying Congress to increase the multiplier to 2.5. This would ensure any school meeting the 40% mark would be fully reimbursed.

Maconaquah's eligibility is less clear. FRAC's database had each Maconaquah school eligible, not including the high school, for last school year. However, school officials said in an email they do not qualify.

FRAC has not yet published its CEP report for the 2022-23 school year.

Breakfast help

Eligible but not eligible enough comes at a time when most parents are back to paying for their child's lunch at school. Federal waivers that allowed all students to eat breakfast and lunch for free the last two years were not renewed by Congress this spring.

Households must apply for free/reduced meals, only qualifying if they are at or below 130% of the poverty level.

Taylor is able to offer free breakfast to all students through an Indiana Department of Education program. Schools that do not have a CEP or participate in other similar programs can offer free breakfast.

Free school breakfast decreases hunger, gives students a strong start to the day, and has been linked to improved nutrition, attendance and academic performance.

"From my understanding, it has really helped them be more engaged," Bolin said.

Students at Taylor can grab breakfast and eat it during their first class. This does not require students to get to school earlier to eat before class starts. Bolin said the intent is to get more kids to take advantage of free breakfast.

Eastern also offers universal free breakfast.

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at spencer.durham@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.