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Oregon OKs largest expansion of federal free lunch program

It's the first time a state has offered to completely take on school meal costs, which can often run tens of thousands of dollars for individual school districts. The move is expected to provide hundreds of thousands of students with free breakfast and lunch.

Posted: May 16, 2019 11:39 AM
Updated: May 16, 2019 11:51 AM

By SARAH ZIMMERMAN Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers have approved the largest statewide expansion of the federal free lunch program, ensuring all students living up to three times above the poverty line will have access to free meals.

It's the first time a state has offered to completely take on school meal costs, which can often run tens of thousands of dollars for individual school districts. The move is expected to provide hundreds of thousands of students with free breakfast and lunch.

One in seven Oregon households is "food insecure," according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy , meaning that families have trouble putting food on the table and often don't know where they'll get their next meal.

At least 174,000 children have limited access to food, more than the population of Oregon's second largest city, Eugene.

"Hungry kids don't think about education nearly as much as having something in their stomach," said Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Democrat from Coos Bay who helped craft the legislation.

At least 62% of students attend a school with high federal poverty rates. These schools can get federal assistance to provide free meals to all their students no matter their income levels under the 2011 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a policy championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

But even though these schools may qualify for assistance, not all of them take advantage of it because of low federal reimbursement rates. Instead, they only provide meals to those living about two times above the federal poverty level.

Around a third of food insecure students in Oregon, however, live above that poverty threshold meaning they're ineligible for free meals, according to data from Feeding America .

Tim Sweeney, a superintendent in Oregon's impoverished South Coast, said that his district runs a deficit because it chooses to take on the cost of feeding all its students. Even with federal assistance, it costs around $25,000 a year to provide free breakfast and lunches, money Sweeney said could have gone to textbooks.

"Poverty is a huge deal here and so many students rely on schools to provide them with food and a warm place for shelter," he said. "Food service may not be a winning game, but we know it means the world to these kids."

Oregon will now be the first in the nation to pick up these school districts' school lunch tabs, allowing 761 schools across the state to provide free lunch and breakfast to approximately 345,000 students.

In the 484 remaining schools that aren't high poverty and therefore don't qualify for the federal program, the state will cover the cost to feed kids that live up to three times above the poverty level, expanding the qualifying threshold to capture more hungry students.

The meals expansion is tucked away in a tax package for schools, a sweeping $1 billion annual investment explicitly dedicated to boosting student performance. The program, which will cost the state $40 million a year, will be paid for through a new half a percent tax on business.

Gov. Kate Brown signed the school funding tax package, but it's likely to be referred to the voters to decide in 2020, thanks to Oregon's robust referendum process.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 32994

Reported Deaths: 547
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Multnomah7204138
Marion469594
Washington454060
Umatilla298741
Clackamas242061
Malheur163327
Lane123417
Jackson11615
Deschutes85212
Yamhill76213
Jefferson5418
Polk53215
Linn52213
Morrow5056
Lincoln48213
Union4462
Benton3146
Wasco2963
Klamath2802
Hood River2520
Douglas2334
Clatsop2170
Josephine1982
Columbia1791
Coos1570
Baker942
Crook621
Tillamook530
Lake330
Curry310
Wallowa311
Sherman180
Harney120
Grant100
Gilliam80
Unassigned00
Wheeler00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 812711

Reported Deaths: 15633
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Los Angeles2684556515
Riverside589321206
San Bernardino54482925
Orange534481216
San Diego46734776
Kern31994369
Fresno28441382
Sacramento22356406
Santa Clara21241314
Alameda21240406
San Joaquin20245441
Contra Costa16640206
Stanislaus16471356
Tulare15970263
Ventura12775150
Imperial11852317
San Francisco11195101
Monterey995372
San Mateo9897150
Santa Barbara9090113
Merced8872142
Kings765180
Sonoma7412122
Marin6730118
Solano640065
Madera453965
Placer358745
San Luis Obispo356229
Butte283344
Yolo281555
Santa Cruz23609
Sutter170511
Napa169013
San Benito134811
Yuba11537
El Dorado11304
Mendocino93418
Shasta88317
Lassen7400
Glenn5783
Tehama5735
Lake55511
Nevada5377
Colusa5316
Humboldt5088
Calaveras31714
Amador29616
Tuolumne2274
Inyo18815
Mono1662
Siskiyou1650
Del Norte1391
Mariposa752
Plumas500
Modoc270
Trinity160
Sierra60
Alpine20
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