For the past two years, Congress has provided free school meals to all students, regardless of household income, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With that benefit now expired, school districts in Minnesota are preparing for a return to the status quo, in which low-income families must apply to receive free or reduced-price meals while others purchase meals at school or bring them from home.
St. Paul Public Schools, however, is taking the rare step of spending $1.7 million from its $563 million general fund — which primarily pays teachers’ salaries and benefits — to continue serving schools. free meals to all students at 18 schools who no longer qualify for universal free meals.
“It’s an advantage that once you have it, it’s very difficult to take it away. Parents and families expect it,” said Jackie Turner, District Chief of Administration and Operations.
The district began using the community eligibility provision in 2014-15 for eight schools. The rule allows a school district, school, or group of schools to directly certify free lunches for all students, based on strong family participation in other government programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) or Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
A year later, St. Paul used the provision for 40 schools.
But since then, St. Paul’s District students’ share of government aid has declined. Four of those 40 schools are closing this summer due to low enrolment. And half of the other 36 are no longer eligible for the full reimbursement rate benefit, said Lynn Broberg, assistant director of nutrition services.
Schools are entitled to universal free meals if at least 40% of students are enrolled in other government programs. But federal government reimbursement rates don’t fully cover the cost of meals unless 62.5% of students are directly certified.
That’s where the $1.7 million comes in. “The general fund covers the difference,” Broberg said.
Almost all of that money will subsidize meals for middle- and high-income earners — more than $51,338 a year for a family of four. However, some low-income families should also benefit, as not all of them apply – or do not apply right away – for income-contingent school meal subsidies.
Use of the community eligibility provision is relatively rare in Minnesota. The state ranks 47th in the nation, according to legislative testimony from state Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, who tried to pass a bill guaranteeing free lunches to all Minnesota students.
A guide from the Minnesota Department of Education suggests that districts should be able to find the money to cover the reimbursement shortfall if they can achieve a 55% direct certification rate. If not general funds, districts can use revenue from a la carte meal sales or in-kind donations, the guide says.
JUST ST. PAUL
The Pioneer Press asked the state’s largest school districts if they are spending general funds to continue serving universal free lunches next year. The nine people who responded said they weren’t.
“I don’t know if our audience would support the use of general fund funds to provide free meals to students who don’t qualify under federal guidelines,” said Tony Taschner, spokesperson for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district. .
Anoka-Hennepin spokesman Jim Skelly said the district hasn’t discussed it because it “would require a multi-million dollar budget cut or program cut in other areas of the district.” “.
Spokesman Pepe Barton said schools in South Washington County “do not have the funds available to pay for meals for families who are not eligible. We estimate the cost would be over $4.4 million. .
Several districts have expressed concern about the low number of families applying for free meals and other benefits during the pandemic. Thanks to the federal government, families didn’t have to apply for two years of free lunches, but those forms also determine how much special funding school districts receive for other purposes.
“Because meals have been free for the past two years, very few families have completed the application, and category funding has been significantly reduced as a result,” Taschner said.
St. Paul District officials have expressed concern in the past about free school-wide lunches reducing the incentive for parents to turn in these forms.
In the seven years since the district began using the community eligibility provision, the share of students enrolled in meal subsidies has increased from 72.3% to 61.5%; the statewide numbers fell from 38.3% to 31.6% during the same period.
FREE MEALS AT 36 SCHOOLS
The following 18 St. Paul Public Schools will serve free lunches to all students next year and will receive full federal government reimbursement under the Community Eligibility Provision:
- AGAPE High School
- American Indian Magnet
- Benjamin E. Mays IB World School
- Bruce F. Vento Elementary School
- Como Park Primary School
- Dayton’s Bluff Elementary School
- Four Seasons A+ Elementary
- Gordon Parks Secondary School
- Hazel Park Preparatory Academy
- Highwood Hills Elementary School
- Humboldt High School
- Travel Secondary School
- Maxfield Elementary School
- Mississippi Creative Arts
- Obama Elementary School
- River East Primary and Secondary
- Saint Paul Academy of Music
- Washington Tech Magnet
These 18 schools will serve free lunches to all students next year only thanks to a $1.7 million grant from the St. Paul District General Fund:
- Battle Creek Elementary School
- Battle Creek High School
- Bridge View School
- Cherokee Heights Elementary School
- Como Park High School
- Secondary Creative Arts
- Eastern Heights Elementary School
- Farnsworth Aerospace Lower Campus
- Farnsworth Aerospace Upper Campus
- focus beyond
- Frost Lake Elementary School
- Hamline Primary School
- Harding High School
- Hidden River High School
- LEAP High School
- Phalen Lake Hmong Studies
- The heights community school
- Wellstone Elementary School