Kids may lose free school meals

May 02–In a state ranked highest in the nation for childhood hunger and food insecurity, some fear New Mexico’s low-income children may be at risk of losing federally funded free school breakfasts and lunches next school year.

To blame: bureaucratic problems that have bred confusion, misinformation and criticism about oversight of the National School Lunch Program by the state’s Public Education Department and the regional office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A USDA management evaluation for fiscal year 2012 found the PED’s Student Nutrition Program failed to require the proper documentation of how some New Mexico schools have determined eligibility for a USDA free meal program that served more than 77,000 children at 348 schools this year.

PED officials say they have made strides in improving the “paperwork process” and don’t believe eligible children will go without free school meals next school year.

“We don’t think that’s going to be a big issue,” said Paul Aguilar, deputy secretary for PED’s finance and operations.

The USDA audit focused on a program that pays for free meals for all students at schools or school districts with a high percentage of low-income students.

One result could be a requirement that schools must now “reestablish” their students’ documentation proving eligibility.

That would mean asking every family of a student to fill out a new application where their eligibility would be determined. Then schools would have to track the percentages of students in each income category over the next year, all in the quest to establish a “base year” needed for federal approval.

But some school districts haven’t tackled that task for more than 20 years and are ill-equipped to go back and compile the data in time for the new school year, said Nancy Cathey, president-elect of the New Mexico School Nutrition Association.

“First of all, they may have nobody left there who has actually processed applications before,” said Cathey, who is the student nutrition director for Las Cruces Public Schools. Some school districts have been operating under the Provision 2 program for so long, she said, “they don’t even have cashiers or even cash registers.”

Moreover, she said, “You have families who don’t understand why suddenly they have to fill out an application if they’re still eating for free … and they’ve never filled out an application before.”

Lack of guidance

Last week, four of five members of the state’s congressional delegation wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to intercede, contending that New Mexico schools trying to provide such meals to students “have been hampered by the lack of necessary guidance, training or data.”

The letter, signed by all four New Mexico Democrats in Congress, said state-generated data that was supposed to be the foundation for a new federal school meal program in New Mexico “is fundamentally flawed, creating uncertainty for schools about their eligibility … .”

Moreover, schools have yet to receive information from the state PED regarding a summer food program, “allowing little time to apply for this important program.”

The letter noted that officials at the Food and Nutrition Service at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., have “stepped in to help fill the information and data gap.” But the letter asks the USDA to “step up its involvement” to help educate New Mexico school officials.

In March, New Mexico Appleseed, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending poverty, asked Sen. Tom Udall’s office for help.

“These issues directly impact New Mexico’s poorest children, schools and school districts, and if they are not addressed in a thorough and thoughtful manner, many already hungry New Mexican children will have to pay for or miss vital school meals in the 2014-2015 school year,” wrote Jennifer Ramo, executive director of the organization, in a letter to Udall.

PED’s Aguilar told the Journal that he doesn’t believe his agency has disseminated any flawed data or misinformation and noted that the USDA regional office in Dallas “is pleased with the work that we’ve been doing in addressing all the issues.”

PED spokesman Larry Behrens added that New Mexico’s Public Education Department has won praise for its administration of other school food programs, ranking “number one in the country for providing meals to students.”

USDA officials in Dallas didn’t respond to Journal questions.

Missing data

The management review by the federal agency focused on the free meal program called Provision 2.

For a school or district to qualify for the free meals, the program requires an initial base year of data, which, among other things, requires schools to count meals daily over the school year. Once that base year data is certified, schools can receive extensions by supplying socio-economic data to the state PED every four years.

In its review, the USDA found the state approved extensions beyond the allowable time and the federal agency concluded that socio-economic data used to determine continued eligibility was “insufficient or missing.”

The base year mandate comes at a time when the USDA is rolling out a new school meal program nationwide that’s supposed to reduce administrative costs and paperwork, and improve students’ access to free meals, according to the USDA website.

New Mexico schools faced with the daunting task of establishing a new base year could switch to the new program, Cathey said.

Albuquerque Public Schools, for example, plans to transfer all its Provision 2 schools to the new program called Community Eligibility Provision, which bases eligibility for free school meals on already compiled information from other federal assistance programs, such as food stamps or cash welfare payments.

But the new program won’t work in some areas of New Mexico, where poor families aren’t receiving that kind of federal assistance, Cathey said.

Take the Deming School District, or other districts along the New Mexico-Mexico border.

“Deming has a very unique problem in that the community is very poor and not that many families are getting SNAP support because they have a lot of kids who are citizens and the parents aren’t,” Cathey said.

Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, New Mexico has the highest rate of childhood hunger, at 29 percent, according to national nonprofit group Feeding America, a hunger relief charity and network of more than 200 food banks in the nation.

There are “quite a few kids (in New Mexico) that the meals they eat at schools, that may be their only meals of the day,” Cathey said.