Congress bill would impact Central PA kids getting free meals

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A bill which would cut the number of schools allowed to give free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch to its students is moving through Congress.

In the ten counties in FOX43's viewing area (Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mifflin, Perry, and York), 102 of the region's 488 total schools are eligible to supply free meals under the federal community eligibility provision, according to figures supplied by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The program allows schools where at least 40 percent of its student's fall below the poverty line to provide free meals to all students.

However, a bill sponsored by Congressman Todd Rotika (R-Indiana) would raise the minimum eligibility requirements to 60 percent of a school's students needing to qualify for free or reduced-price meals in order for all students to get it for free.

At Columbia School District in Lancaster County, students are participating in the community eligibility program for the first time, says business manager Amy Light.

"Being able to provide breakfast and lunch for everyone has had a positive impact," she says. "The stigma of being a free or reduced lunch kid is gone. Our students don’t have to worry about being labeled or judged."

However, according to the Department of Education's 2016-17 projections, two of Columbia's four schools would be impacted by the bill, and fall under the 60 percent requirement. Across the region, 56 of the area's 102 schools currently eligible for free and reduced-price meals would be cut.

"It could impact the kids lives in other areas if the family has to start paying for breakfast and lunch again," Light says.

House Resolution 5003 could save an estimated $1 billion. It recently passed the Education and Workforce Committee, where Harrisburg-area Congressman Lou Barletta is a member. He voted to approve the bill, saying in a press release that the bill will "help schools purchase new equipment that will permit for more storage, allowing schools to buy in bulk and prepare food on-site. This provision is limited in scope and will help improve students' health."

Bill opponents, like Ryan Riley of the at-risk student advocacy group Communities In Schools, calls it a "tone deaf bill," and fears eliminating free meals from schools would lead to some unintended consequences.

"I think what you’re going to find is parents are going to be making incredibly difficult decisions," Riley says. "They're not going pay the gas bill...electric bill. They're going to skip medication, because they have now incurred a cost, say $150 a month, that they didn’t have before."

H.R. 5003 would not impact any individual students and families already eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

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