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Free school breakfast program to expand under new law

By Melissa Greene mgreene@news-journal.com
Sept. 3, 2013 at 11 p.m.

Some Northeast Texas schools may be serving a free breakfast to all students at their campuses next fall under a new law that went into effect Sunday. The additional breakfasts will not cost school districts or taxpayers any additional money, according to the USDA.

Senate Bill 376 requires public school campuses or open-enrollment charter schools to offer breakfast free of charge to all students on campuses where more than 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced meals.

The Texas Hunger Project reported 5,489 Gregg County students participated in free breakfast programs in 2011 while another 484 paid a reduced fee.

About 1,200 students paid full price for breakfast.

Although school districts can opt out of the program, the change is intended to create a cost-neutral and potentially profitable breakfast program while encouraging children to eat a nutritional breakfast.

"It's critical to their learning, when they start the day hungry, all they can focus on is their stomachs," said Pine Tree ISD Food Services Director Michelle Mitchell on Tuesday.

The School Breakfast Program is a federally financed program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture which is implemented at the state level by the Texas Department of Agriculture. Schools report the number of meals served to the state, which then reimburses them based on the type of meal served – free, reduced or paid.

Schools districts that participate must serve meals that meet federal nutritional requirements.

Longview ISD has been serving free breakfast for all elementary students for about five years, said spokesman Adam Holland, under the program that could be expanded.

Five schools in LISD had more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged students in 2011, according to data collected by the Texas Education Agency.

Under the program - if 100 percent participation is reached - LISD could see more than $400,000 in additional revenue, according to an impact study by the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

The only other local districts with schools meeting the 80 percent mark are Hallsville ISD, which could see an additional $15,164 in revenue, and Kilgore ISD, with about $66,000 in potential revenue identified, the center reported.

"Right now, if a district chooses to offer a universal breakfast, the district pays the bill," Mitchell said, adding that it would cost Pine Tree ISD about $45,000 to offer a district-wide breakfast based on the number of students who ate breakfast this spring. "This (federal funding) will increase revenue and help districts out in two-fold way: They don't have to pay for the breakfast and they can put that revenue into other avenues where it is needed in the district."

School districts are currently reimbursed 28 cents for each paid meal served, $2.53 for each reduced fee meal and $2.93 for each free meal served, according to Texas Department of Agriculture data.

Just more than 3 million Texas schoolchildren were eligible for free or reduced meals this past year, and with 59 percent participating, the state was reimbursed $460 million, according to the non-partisan research group Children At Risk.

The bill doesn't change eligibility requirements used to determine if a student qualifies for free or reduced price meals, but it does require the campus to be comprised of at least 80 percent economically disadvantaged students.

That is determined for each student by household size, income and federal poverty guidelines.

For example, the poverty level for a four-person household is $23,550, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Children in a four-person household where income is 130 percent below that level qualify for free meals, while those in households where income is between 130 and 185 percent below qualify for reduced meal rates.



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