More students in need of free or reduced meals

More students are showing up to Kenai Peninsula Borough School District cafeterias without lunch money, joining a growing number of their peers statewide.

Half of Alaska’s students attending schools that offer meal programs now qualify for free or reduced meals.

“This can be an indicator that one in every two students may be at risk of occasional food insecurity” said Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Student Nutrition Administrator Dean Hamburg.

The rate of students statewide that qualify for free or reduced priced federal reimbursement programs for United States Department of Agriculture lunches, afterschool snacks and breakfasts has increased steadily since 2012.

In the 2012-2013 school year 46 percent of students qualified. That number rose to 50 percent during the 2014-2015 school year, according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, 38 percent of students were eligible during the 2014-2015 school year.

“That’s indicative of the need for supply of meals to children year round,” Hamburg said. “We have those circumstances in the regular school year and in the summer where families are concerned and stressed out during those periods when there’s not access to a school meal program.”

Hamburg has seen the number of qualifying students top out at 45 percent.

In May 2014 and May 2015, 3,090 students, or 40 percent of students who attend school district sites with USDA meal programs, were deemed eligible for free or reduced price meals through National School Lunch Program in the school district, Hamburg said. That rate has held steady in the past three years, with some fluctuation from month to month, he said.

Families must reapply to the program annually, Hamburg said. In the application process for participation in the school district’s lunch program income variables can include the amount of the annual PFD and household size.

About 30 percent of school district participating students qualify through direct certifications because they or their families qualify through other avenues, Hamburg said. Homeless, migrant, student’s whose families are on food stamps or temporary assistance and foster children usually gain automatic eligibility for reduced or free meals, he said.

The number of students also varies from site to site, Hamburg said. In May 2015, 21 percent of the students at the Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Sciences qualified for free or reduced meals, while 59 percent at Kenai Alternative High School qualified, he said.

The school district receives reimbursement through the National School Lunch Program for paid, reduced and free meals, Hamburg said.

Alaska school districts received $4.84 for each free lunch, $4.44 for each reduced lunch and $0.46 for each paid lunch in federal reimbursements for lunches provided in the 2014-2015 school year, according to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service rates of reimbursement report for the 2014-2015 school year.

Alaska and Hawaii receive more federal funding for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs than the contiguous states, according to the reimbursement report.

Federal reimbursements do not cover the entire cost of student meals, Hamburg said, although, they do recognize the extraordinary challenges of providing those meals to students in Alaska.

Coordinator for the Child and Adult Care Food Program through the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Ann-Marie Martin said the importance of students having access to food is obvious. Children that have nutritious meals perform better because they are not distracted by hunger, she said.

The Alaska Food Coalition, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office and the Food Research and Action Center are working to make free and reduced meals more accessible, Martin said.

“We at the state cannot lobby for changes in legislation but there are some organizations that do on behalf of the agencies in the state,” Martin said.

Reach Kelly Sullivan at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com.

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