RI schools not taking advantage of program to provide free lunches

Education
School lunch

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Multiple Rhode Island school districts and even more individual schools could be providing free meals to all students through a federally funded program but haven’t signed up to participate, according to the R.I. Department of Education.

The Community Eligibility Provision, or “CEP,” was authorized by Congress in 2010 and allows schools and districts with a high percentage of low-income families to offer free meals to all students.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, a D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on poverty-related nutrition issues, 65 Rhode Island schools that meet the CEP eligibility criteria have not adopted the provision. Gov. Gina Raimondo has proposed a new state program to get more districts to sign up.

Two entire districts, Woonsocket and Newport, qualify for the program but haven’t implemented it, according to Department of Education data. Providence also qualifies, but hasn’t applied the CEP to its secondary schools.

Central Falls and Pawtucket qualify and currently provide all meals free of charge to students. According to the Department of Education, 69% of all lunches served in the state are free or reduced-price.

The CEP federal reimbursement rate is based on the percentage of eligible students within the school community; the higher the percentage, the higher the federal reimbursement rate. Schools or districts must have at least 40% of students that meet federal eligibility guidelines.

In Newport, Rebecca Bolan, chairwoman of the school district’s health and wellness committee, said the city has been researching the cost of implementing the provision. According to calculations compiled by the district’s director of dining, phasing in the CEP across the district could cost upwards of $180,000.

Bolan said the cost is due to the fact that Newport’s number of eligible students is just over the 40% threshold, meaning the federal reimbursement would only cover some of the cost.

“We would like nothing more in our district than to have all students eligible for free lunch,” Bolan said in a telephone interview Friday afternoon.

She said Newport officials are trying to tackle the problem of student lunch debt, which she said stands at roughly $50,000 despite having just over 2,156 students enrolled.

By comparison, Warwick — which made national headlines this week for its handling of $77,000 in unpaid student lunch bills — has 8,800 students, four times more than Newport.

Providence, the largest district in the state by far with close to 24,000 students, utilizes the CEP at its elementary schools. Secondary students can receive free and reduced priced meals if they complete the appropriate paperwork, according to district spokeswoman Laura Hart.

Hart said Providence officials are currently evaluating phasing in the CEP for secondary students, too.

Woonsocket is also eligibile to provide free meals district-wide, but doesn’t currently. An email to the district inquiring about the decision wasn’t immediately returned Friday. Woonsocket currently has about $6,000 in outstanding lunch payments.

The issue of student lunch debt is one that nearly every district in the state has to deal with.

School officials in Cranston hired a debt collection agency to deal with unpaid lunch bills this year. According to the district’s chief operating officer, Ray Votto, families recieve a notice in the mail alerting them if their bills are 30 days past due. Accounts that are 60 days past due are turned over the collection agency.

Votto said since Cranston has implemented the new policy, school officials have seen an increase in the number of accounts being paid off and the number of families applying for free and reduced-price lunches. He said they need to collect a year’s worth of data on the collection agency before they can determine its efficacy.

Votto told Eyewitness News that Cranston’s current student lunch debt stands at $90,532. Cranston has close to 10,500 students enrolled this year, according to the Department of Education.

Smithfield, where enrollment is just over 2,400, has about $1,381 of student lunch debt on the books. Superintendent Judith Paolucci said up to $400 of that is owed by two families. She blames the debt in part on hectic lifestyles.

“Today’s busy families are going in every which direction so when they get emails about low balances, they just disregard them at the moment then forget about them entirely,” Paolucci wrote in an email to Eyewitness News. “We have found that for these individuals, a personal phone call works best. No one wants a second phone call but a second email can be disregarded just as easy as the first.”

Paolucci said there are also cases where families may not qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but still feel stretched thin.

“We know our families well here in Smithfield and work with families to work something out to help them or connect them to resources,” she said.

Paolucci also said only a “small, small, small percentage” of families in Smithfield are failing to pay their bills because they are neglecting their children’s needs.

“Just like for academics, one must determine the root cause in order to devise an intervention that works,” she said. “Districts are trying hard to figure out something that works for their population and the sunbutter sandwich, I believe, is something that wasn’t meant to cause shame. I think, though, that our personal approach here in Smithfield is having a more successful result.”

“Districts cannot afford to have universal paid lunch and the responsibilities of parents should not universally be placed upon schools or towns,” she added. “When need is identified, that’s another story.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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