Democratic legislators propose bill expanding free school meals

Published 3:48 pm Friday, August 18, 2023

Two Democratic state legislators are hoping to expand access to free meals for Kentucky students.

Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong, D-Louisville, and Rep. Chad Aull, D-Lexington, proposed a joint bill for the 2024 legislative session last week at Franklin County Schools’ Peaks Mill Elementary.

The bill would require more Kentucky schools to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision program.

CEP helps low-income schools provide free meals to students.

Several studies have found that students who gain access to school breakfasts have improved academic performance, including higher math scores and decreased absences.

“For many students, school breakfasts and lunches are not just the best meals of the day; they’re often the only ones,” Chambers Armstong said.

“Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, some students have not been able to fully access these meals like they should. The bill that Rep. Aull and I are announcing today would help a lot of families have one less thing to worry about.”

Right now, schools can enroll in CEP if at least 40% of their student population is automatically certified for free school meals due to their participation in certain federal benefits programs.

These programs include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid. Students who live in a household where another student is already enrolled also qualify through extended eligibility.

Students who are homeless, migrants, runaways, in foster care or enrolled in Head Start or Early Head Start are also eligible.

Schools that participate in CEP are reimbursed for meal costs at a specific rate accounting for the percentage of eligible students, plus a little extra to account for low-income students who may not be participating in outside programs.

According to a May report, 1,092 Kentucky schools are participating in the CEP program, which is 97.1% of all eligible schools.

That’s feeding approximately 550,000 students this year, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.

Chambers Armstrong and Aull’s bill would work to close the gap to 100% participation, which could help an additional 20,000 students.

The legislation would require all Kentucky public schools with at least 60% of their student population meeting CEP’s income-eligibility requirements to participate in the program by the 2025-26 academic year.

Additionally, schools with between 40% and 60% of their students meeting eligibility requirements would have to either participate in the program or explain why they aren’t in an annual report to the Department of Education, legislature and the governor.

The report would include the percentage of students who are program-eligible, the number of monthly breakfasts and lunches served, estimated costs of participating in the program and what support they may need to be able to join CEP in the future.

The most common barriers to participation include “insufficient funding to support increased meal service, concerns about the reduction of Title I funding that relies on school meal data and concerns about schools in the district that are ineligible,” said Kate McDonald Goodin, No Kid Hungry Kentucky campaign director.

The bill would offer an additional state reimbursement for meals served at CEP-enrolled schools to encourage greater participation.

Goodin said USDA studies show schools involved in CEP see an increase in school breakfasts and lunches. Without having to collect school meal fees, it’s also easier to implement breakfast in the classroom or grab-and-go breakfasts, she added.

“CEP means less administrative work for food service staff,” Goodin said. “CEP often improves the financial viability of school nutrition programs, which allows districts to increase food quality, hire and keep staff or purchase equipment to implement innovative programs.”

Rep. Aull said Kentucky was among the first 10 states to take part in CEP after it was authorized in 2010, and now hundreds of thousands of students benefit from it.

“Our goal is to have fewer students impacted by hunger, help the local school districts and increase their connection with our agricultural communities,” he said.

“This is a win for our kids, for our schools and for our farmers.”