USDA funds free meals in pilot program at city public schools

Published June 25, 2011 @ 6 a.m.

Half of Springfield's public schools will be able to provide free breakfasts and lunches to income-eligible students during the upcoming school year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing the funding for the pilot program for the poorest children in Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, with hopes to expand the nutrition initiative to all 50 states by the 2014-15 school year, according to Jan Miller, director of food services for the Springfield School District.

Eighteen local schools will participate.

The program will also eliminate the use of applications, so parents won't have to fill out duplicative forms, and children in need will have easier access to healthy meals.

"Under the preliminary information I got ... they're wanting to do this for at least four years," Miller said. "It's totally funded by the USDA. There's no cost out-of-pocket beside the federal tax dollars, no cost to the district.

"If it's considered a poverty school, every child in the building would receive a free breakfast and free lunch."

Instead of collecting money from students, the USDA will reimburse the district for the meals. What the program is likely to cost in Springfield was not available.

"It's kind of an offset," Miller said. "It's going to be covered by the federal government."

High school students attending summer school who were offered free breakfasts and lunches through the district's USDA-funded Summer Food Service Program this week said they believe being properly fed will help fellow students be more academically successful.

"I think it's great because they give us a chance to get free food so we can focus more in class," said Greg Hickenbottom, 17, who attends Springfield High School. "Most kids in their situation with their parents ... they can't afford food. I think that's a great thing they're doing for kids."

Cheyanne Schaffer, 16, who attends Southeast High School, said adequate nutrition helps her keep up the energy she needs to succeed.

"I'm on free and reduced lunch, so it helps a lot to be able to have programs like that," she said. "If you don't eat, then you don't focus. They give us breakfast and they give us lunch, so it helps us keep that energy."

Schools use pre-existing data to determine the amount of reimbursement they can claim from the USDA. The determination is based on the percentage of community homes that are participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is a federal initiative that provides assistance to low-income families.

To be eligible, a school or school district must have at least 40 percent of its enrollment directly certified for free meals by their participation in SNAP, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, according to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.

There's a formula to determine reimbursement, but in Springfield's case, all 18 qualifying schools will be completely funded by federal money, Miller said.

"We're going to do it at the schools where we knew we would break even," she said. "It is a good thing for the schools that are high-poverty schools."

Rhys Saunders can be reached at 788-1539.

$3.4 million award for state

Illinois has been awarded a $3.4 million bonus for its management of a federal program that helps low-income families buy food they need for good health.

The state had an accuracy rate of 98.3 percent for its administration of the Supplemental Food and Nutrition Program (SNAP), ranking Illinois fourth in the nation, according to the state Department of Human Services. It also had the third most improved accuracy rate of all states.

There were 862,243 Illinois families receiving SNAP in May.

Photo: David Spencer/The State Journal-Register --Springfield High School student Greg Hickenbottom eats a cup of green beans Wednesday at the school's cafeteria as part of the USDA Summer Food Service Program.

Copyright 2011 The State Journal-Register. Some rights reserved


Sign up for our email newsletter!