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Proposed changes to nation’s school lunch program could impact thousands of Florida children

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It’s a little-noticed move on Capitol Hill, but one that could negatively impact thousands of Florida children in districts around the state.

House lawmakers are proposing legislation that would roll back school lunch laws passed in 2010. These laws guarantee free lunches and after-school meals for children in high-poverty areas.

A proposal the House will consider (officially called the Education & Workforce Committee Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill) would change the criteria for what’s known as “community eligibility” — which means hundreds of Florida schools would no longer be able to offer free meals to their entire student bodies. Under the Community Eligibility Provision passed in 2010, any school in which 40 percent of the students automatically qualify for free or reduced-price lunch can offer free school breakfast AND lunch to all of its students. The measure being considered in the House would raise that threshold from 40 to 60 percent.

“Those schools would still be able to offer the regular school lunch program, and families could apply for free or reduced lunch meals, but they would likely lose the option to provide free meals to all students without taking applications. So it would make it harder for those schools to offer meals and harder for kids to get them,” says Zoe Neuberger, Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Nutrition advocates are already blasting the bill, which was proposed April 20 by Rep. Todd Rokita, a Republican from Indiana and chair of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education.

Under the measure, fewer students would qualify for free school meals, with overall savings of about $1.6 billion over 10 years. House Republicans would like to funnel those savings into summer food programs and a higher reimbursement rate for the school breakfast program.

However, critics of the legislation say potential savings would not offset the increased administrative burden on schools, increased social stigma for low-income students, and adverse health and academic impacts if kids aren’t getting enough to eat during the school day.

High-poverty Jacksonville stands to be impacted significantly if the bill becomes law, with about two-thirds of Duval County Public Schools currently participating in the program.

“Of all of the counties in Florida, Duval has the highest number of schools participating in community eligibility. I don’t think we can overestimate the impact it’s had, to make sure students are getting not just lunch, but breakfast,” says Deirdre Conner, director of advocacy and communications at the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

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In addition to her work writing for Florida Politics, Melissa Ross also hosts and produces WJCT’s First Coast Connect, the Jacksonville NPR/PBS station’s flagship local call-in public affairs radio program. The show has won four national awards from Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). First Coast Connect was also recognized in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014 as Best Local Radio Show by Folio Weekly’s “Best Of Jax” Readers Poll and Melissa has also been recognized as Folio Weekly’s Best Local Radio Personality. As executive producer of The 904: Shadow on the Sunshine State, Melissa and WJCT received an Emmy in the “Documentary” category at the 2011 Suncoast Emmy Awards. The 904 examined Jacksonville’s status as Florida’s murder capital. During her years in broadcast television, Melissa picked up three additional Emmys for news and feature reporting. Melissa came to WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. Married with two children, Melissa is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism/Communications. She can be reached at m.ross66211@gmail.com.

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