A new law that goes into effect this fall could go a long way toward keeping Texas schoolchildren from going hungry. But first, state and local officials have to figure out exactly what it means and, perhaps most importantly, who pays for it.
Senate Bill 376, authored by State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville and sponsored in the Texas House by State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin, essentially extends the free breakfast program to cover all students at schools that have high proportions of poor kids. The idea is that when breakfasts are free for everyone, there is no longer a stigma attached to the meal as being free only to poor kids — and that significantly more children might take part.
“It is my firm belief that no child should go through a day hungry,” Lucio wrote in an e-mail to Fort Worth Weekly. “Unfortunately, that is the reality for too many young Texans,” and that’s why he filed the bill, he said.
The law requires that, at Texas schools where at least 80 percent of the student body qualifies for reduced-price or free lunches, breakfasts be provided free to all students. At least theoretically, schools would be able to recoup the costs of those extra free breakfasts through reimbursements from the federal School Breakfast Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, the word “require” comes with an asterisk. A school or a school district can receive a one-year waiver from the requirement if the school board approves the waiver after receiving public comment.
Several child advocacy group directors said the waiver was added to address concerns from some legislators that the law not seem punitive.
“The option to opt out was a compromise,” said Celia Cole, chief executive officer at Texas Food Bank Network. She said that if any schools opt out, it will be for a lack of understanding of the program.
“We know eliminating hunger for students boosts their test scores, concentration, and health,” said Cole. “We understand schools feel overwhelmed already and might think ‘Oh, here’s another mandate, another requirement,’ but this is a self-funded mandate.”
And indeed, North Texas school officials, nonprofit leaders, and state officials seem somewhat at odds over the new law. At one district, officials said they don’t know what they’ll do about implementing the bill. Another said the new law’s requirements would be followed, but didn’t think the costs would be reimbursed. In Fort Worth, different people offered different statistics on who is getting free breakfasts and who needs them.
The bill does not provide additional state funds for the breakfast program. Instead, it relies on school districts to apply directly to USDA for reimbursement. A state requirement funded by federal dollars was confusing to some officials.
The task of educating school officials and the public about the law falls to the Texas Department of Agriculture and to nonprofit workers like Jenny Eyer, project coordinator for Children at Risk, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that works on children’s issues in Texas.
Eyer is currently meeting with area school districts about the program. She has an April 24 meeting set with Fort Worth school officials.
“I know Fort Worth ISD has some schools serving universal breakfast, but there are still several schools that could benefit from the program,” she said.
More than 80 percent of Fort Worth School District’s students are financially eligible for a reduced-price or free meal plan. But a study by the Texas Hunger Initiative showed that as recently as 2013 less than a third of those eligible were participating. Based at Baylor University, the initiative is a collaboration among various groups to reduce food insecurity in Texas.
“That’s a low number,” said Kathy Krey, research director for the anti-hunger initiative, regarding Fort Worth’s participation rate. Low participation often reflects how accessible the breakfast programs are to children, she said.
Communications director Clint Bond said the Fort Worth district has already changed eligibility rules for its universal breakfast program because of the bill. Before the current school year, only Fort Worth schools with 90 percent of students on reduced-price meal plans had a universal breakfast program. Now that threshold has been lowered to 75 percent.
“At latest count we were serving 28,188 breakfasts daily, encompassing about two-thirds of our elementary classrooms and several middle and high schools,” Bond said. Under the program, breakfasts are delivered directly to classrooms so that parents don’t have to get their kids to school earlier than usual for a pre-class meal in the cafeteria.
JC Dwyer of the Texas Food Bank Network said that 106 of Fort Worth’s 128 schools are eligible for universal breakfast programs, but only 80 are participating now.
“Our hope is that very few of the remaining 26 schools will decide to waive out for next year,” she said. The coalition of nonprofits that her group works with is trying to get the message out about the program’s benefits.
Jackie Anderson, food and nutrition director for the Arlington school district, is one of the skeptics.
“There’s been general confusion [in her district],” she said. “Who pays for the unfunded portion of this? Federal funds? Our general fund?” She said she recently received a notice from the state agriculture agency that the school district may be required to cover the additional costs.
“I worry about smaller school districts that cannot cover this, but I don’t expect any schools in Arlington to not participate in the new bill” she said. Despite the question on reimbursements, Arlington officials recently decided to add seven schools to the nine already participating in the universal breakfast program.
Rachel Cooper, senior policy advisor at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a social justice advocacy group, said too many schools still don’t offer breakfast outside of the cafeteria, causing a major barrier for students and families. The bill does not direct how and when schools must offer breakfast.
“Are you serving when the kids are actually there?” she asked. “I know as a parent that getting to school early can be a nightmare.”
“I think breakfast in the classroom is great in some situations, but it offers a limited menu,” said Anderson. She said several important food options, like eggs, cannot easily be delivered to classrooms.
Tina Robinson, child nutrition director for the Lake Worth Independent School District, is still considering the bill’s merits.
“We’re not sure of the direction [Lake Worth] is going,” she said. “I’m still trying to find out what the other ISDs are doing and what the financial impact may be. We’ll get input from our [school] board and do what’s best for the kids.”
Robinson said she as yet to see any “real data” on the program.
Krey, with Texas Hunger Initiative, is hoping for the best and preparing for setbacks. She’s been in this situation before.
“We expect to have to deal with schools opting out, especially in the first-year rollout,” she said. “We had a similar situation when we pushed to pass the Summer Food Service Program. We worked with the Texas Department of Agriculture to see who waived out. Then we reached out to those schools and asked what their concerns were. We expect something similar here. Sometimes these setbacks are due to political reasons or a lack of awareness.”
Lucio is optimistic. “Universal breakfast programs have already been successfully implemented in school districts across the state,” he said. “If some schools do opt for a waiver, I’ll work to ensure they get connected with adequate resources and support to implement a universal breakfast program the following year.”
Fort Worth freelance writer Edward Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ejb0017.