Lincoln Public Schools officials haven’t decided whether to participate in a new USDA program allowing all students in high-poverty schools to eat free.

Community Eligibility Provision is now open to 94 schools in Nebraska, including numerous LPS schools.

The provision allows schools at which at least 40 percent of students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program to provide meals to all of its students for free.

Thirty-three LPS schools have more than 40 percent of students in the the free and reduced-price lunch program.

The new program was piloted in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan in 2011, phased in in four other states the following year and is now open to all states.

Advocates, including Nebraska Appleseed, are encouraging schools to use it, saying it's a powerful tool to make school lunches available to more students.

“In Nebraska, 16 percent of households with children lack access to adequate food,” said Nebraska Appleseed Economic Justice Director James Goddard. “This is why the community eligibility option is so important for our schools.”

LPS Nutrition Services Director Edith Zumwalt said she would love to be able to provide free lunches to more students but is unsure of the financial impact of the provision to her department, or how it might affect the district’s access to Title I money. Federal Title I funds supplement local funding at high-poverty schools.

“I think it’s a great idea if it doesn’t hurt other programs,” she said. “We’re going to have to research it and go slowly.”

Schools have until June 30 to apply.

Advocates say advantages include less paperwork for schools and families, as well as eliminating the stigma attached to the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

But Zumwalt said federal Title I funds are based on the number of students whose family incomes make them eligible for the free and reduced-price program. If they don’t fill out the applications, she’s unsure how that would affect Title I.

She’s also concerned about the cost, because schools would lose some income from students who pay full or reduced prices. The LPS nutrition services program is self-supporting.

It makes the most sense for schools at which the vast majority of students are already on free and reduced-price lunch, she said. At grade schools such as Clinton and Elliott, for instance, more than 90 percent of students are eligible.

LPS already uses the provision for breakfasts in several schools, Zumwalt said, but families still fill out applications for lunch.

School lunches now cost $2.25 in elementary, $2.45 in middle school and $2.60 in high school. The Lincoln Board of Education will consider a 10-cent increase at its board meeting Tuesday, a requirement by USDA. The cost of breakfast -- now $1.20 in elementary and $1.30 in secondary schools -- would also go up 10 cents.

LPS served about 24,500 lunches this year, an increase over last year, Zumwalt said, and about 6,200 breakfasts, an all-time high.

Schools in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan that adopted the federal provision two years ago saw a 13 percent increase in school lunch participation and a 25 percent increase in students who ate breakfast at school, according to Nebraska Appleseed.

Similar increases in Nebraska would mean 32,000 more children would eat school lunches and breakfasts, the advocacy organization estimated.

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