Our Voice: Providing free meals for all students worth a test run

Taking the lead is never easy.

It is always safer to wait and watch while others test something new. That way they take all the risk and you can learn from their experience. It takes courage to be first.

So the Richland School District is to be congratulated for having the confidence to be the first in the Tri-City area to try a new federal food program that will allow all children at Jefferson Elementary School to have free meals regardless of their ability to pay.

It is likely neighboring school districts will be monitoring how well this program works at Jefferson. If successful, it could lead to a more efficient way of feeding Mid-Columbia schoolchildren.

Congress passed the Community Eligibility Provision to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, and it goes into effect nationally this school year.

Currently, there is a fair amount of paperwork involved for low-income families to qualify for free and reduced breakfasts and lunches for their school-age children. There always has been concern that some families are not even aware of the program, and that their children are not getting adequate nutrition during the school day.

Under the new law, schools where at least 40 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals are eligible to offer free meals to all children at the school.

This means that there would be some children who, even though they have the ability to pay for meals, also would be allowed to eat for free.

Some people may think this is a waste of tax money. However, it is less expensive to feed everyone, than is it to track those few who can afford to pay.

Also it is probable the children who live in low-income school boundaries may be just over the poverty line. Just because they don't qualify for aid, does not mean they are necessarily well off.

Federal officials and school administrators across the country believe the benefits of the new program are substantial. It reduces administrative costs and paperwork for families, as well as the need to collect meal payments from students and track who owes money.

There have been pilot programs implemented around the country that have been successful.

Ultimately, the new system will serve more students who need it, which is the most important aspect of the program.

At the school level, every school in Pasco would qualify for the new meal program and 19 of 25 in Kennewick. In Richland, eight of 15 schools meet the minimum requirement.

Jefferson Elementary School has the highest percentage of needy families in the Richland School District, with 70 percent of the school's 398 students qualifying for free or reduced meals in May 2013.

Whole school districts also are eligible for the program if 40 percent of their students are low-income, which means Pasco and Kennewick school districts could qualify, as more than half of their students now receive free or reduced lunches.

One of the reasons some school districts are cautious about implementing the program is there is some concern about how it might affect other federal money allocated in a school district.

Also, even though families would not have to fill out paperwork to receive the free meals, school districts would still have to prove they qualify for the program or they might have to return money or pay a penalty.

Only schools where at least 83.5 percent of students come from low-income families would have the cost of the meals fully covered.

Schools that fall between 40 percent and 83.5 percent would receive additional federal aid, but the school district would have to cover the difference.

Richland school officials said they believe they will break even at Jefferson.

It makes sense for many Tri-City-area-school districts to approach this new meal system cautiously, allowing themselves time to get some insight into all the ramifications that may be involved.

However, someone has to be the first to test it. Richland has the right idea in trying it at its neediest school.

It's a bold move that may end up benefitting needy children throughout the Mid-Columbia.