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USDA expands universal school meal program for Oklahoma districts


USDA expands universal school meal program for Oklahoma districts

Oct 04, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Nuria Martinez-Keel
USDA expands universal school meal program for Oklahoma districts
A child puts her mask back on after finishing lunch at a socially distanced table in the cafeteria of Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images) (This image cannot be republished without a Getty subscription.)

More Oklahoma students could eat free meals in their school cafeteria with a new expansion of federal reimbursements for child nutrition costs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week it will offer extra funds to an estimated 3,000 more districts nationwide to help bring universal free meals to more schools. 

The USDA said more schools will qualify for a program called Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which offers federal reimbursements to cover a portion of meal costs in schools that choose to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students regardless of income.

The impact of CEP expansion in Oklahoma is twofold. First, the USDA is lowering the threshold for schools to qualify for extra reimbursements. 

Also, Oklahoma children on Medicaid now will automatically qualify for free and reduced-price meals and therefore count toward the CEP program, creating more opportunities for their schools to receive funding.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education said it’s still unclear how many districts in the state will newly qualify. The advocacy organization Hunger Free Oklahoma estimated 530 schools in 390 districts will now be eligible.

Expanded access to federal funding also could make it more attainable for the state to fund free school meals for all Oklahoma students, said Chris Bernard, president and CEO of Hunger Free Oklahoma.

He estimated it would cost the state government $100 million or less to pay for universal free meals in Oklahoma schools. Eight other states have implemented similar plans, including neighboring New Mexico and Colorado.

“In its simplest terms, we all know kids need to have a full belly in order to fill their brains with the knowledge they need,” Bernard said. “The question is, to me, are we as a state willing to make the investment required to make sure that happens, or are we willing to let the dollars we invest in education continue to not be leveraged in their maximum way because we can’t meet some of these most basic needs.”

More than 625,000 Oklahoma children are enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program, SoonerCare, though not all are school age. 

Those who are old enough to attend school now automatically qualify for free and reduced-price cafeteria meals without their caregivers having to fill out an application.

Students also automatically qualify for free and discounted meals if they are homeless, in foster care or eligible for government benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Under the USDA’s old rules, schools could apply for CEP if 40% of their students met these criteria. Now, that threshold to qualify will lower to 25%.

In Norman Public Schools, all but a handful of schools meet the new 25% threshold, said Brenda O’Brian, the district’s chief financial officer.

But because the federal reimbursements cover only a portion of a meal’s price, the district would have to review whether taking on the cost of universal free meals would present too great of a financial strain, O’Brian said while speaking at an interim study Monday at the state Capitol.

“It certainly allows us to be more open now to that concept of looking at CEP,” O’Brian said. “… We certainly know it would be the right thing for our kids, but we’ve got to also look at that budget perspective, as well.”

A minority of eligible districts, 39%, previously signed up for the program because of financial concerns, according to Hunger Free Oklahoma.

Students in schools without universal free meals still can eat for free or at a discount through the National School Lunch Program. That is a separate USDA program that requires families to fill out an application and meet income requirements.