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Wichita Public Schools continues free meals for students, community group looks beyond

Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 11:23 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Wichita Public Schools students will continue to receive free breakfast and lunch through the upcoming school year. It’s a continuation the USDA made earlier this year to reimburse schools and childcare centers nationwide for free meals regardless of a student’s family’s income.

USD 259 will provide breakfast to elementary students in the classroom. Middle and high schools are looking to provide students breakfast after the bell.

Parents say they’re happy they don’t have to worry about money in their students’ accounts.

“It helps for people who have low income and make sure their kids are fed and taken care of,” said parent Sarah Wells, a mother of six. “Kids that don’t get fed at home and so when they go to school they at least get fed a nice meal.”

While the free meal program addressed the impact of the pandemic, Haley Kottler, director of the Kansas Appleseed Anti-Hunger Campaign, says it’s still necessary remain at no cost beyond this upcoming school year.

“Hunger existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also exist after the COVID 19 pandemic and so free meals for kids at school is really a no-brainer,” said Kottler.

She says the program can be continued next year through a USDA program called Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).

“There wasn’t a lot of traction around the Community Eligibility Provision. Kansas was something like 49th out of 50 states plus DC,” said Kottler

Not all schools qualify for CEP. Unlike the Free and Reduced Meal Program, which is based on an individual family’s need, CEP looks at a school or district as a whole, to serve those with the highest poverty rates. It takes into consideration how many students are at risk of going hungry and on programs like SNAP.

“In Wichita Public Schools, 76.5 percent of Wichita Public Schools kids come from homes of poverty. That is a huge number,” said Kottler.

Data from the Food Research and Action Center showed last year Wichita had two schools enrolled in CEP as a way to study the program in the district but more are eligible. Statewide more than 40 schools take part in the program; well over 200 qualify. Derby, Goddard and Hutchinson districts also have schools enrolled CEP.

Kottler says it makes school nutrition services part of the solution,

“We know that the fantastic food service department at USD 259 is serving 47,000 meals to kids every day,” said Kottler.

In a statement, WPS said:

It’s too early to know whether we will consider further designation of CEP schools. Because of COVID and the fact that all students were able to eat for free, our pilot project with the two schools you noted didn’t give us the opportunity for comprehensive evaluation under normal conditions.

As the year evolves and we receive further direction from USDA and the state regarding the student nutrition program, we will certainly consider the CEP designation further to understand how it would impact our kids and our district.

WPS

The second year of pandemic-EBT also begins this year. The program provides funds to families with kids on free or reduced meals because of school closures or classes moving online for at least five consecutive days. Families will receive the funds through a card provided by the Kansas Department of Children and Families (DCF).

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