Mesa Sen. Rich Crandall says his legislation to let Arizona school districts opt out of the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches to needy students only changes one word in the current state law.
But that one word - from "shall" to "may" - has prompted a barrage of complaints and criticism from those who believe the change will lead to inequity among schools and hungry children.
"It is an issue that a lot of teachers are concerned about because they know how important lunch is to a segment of our kids" and how that impacts instruction, said Doug Kilgore, spokesman for the Arizona Education Association. "They are concerned some kids might not get those lunches."
The bill, SB 1061, made headlines this week when it passed the Senate Education Committee 6-1. It next goes before the Senate Rules Committee and then on to the entire Senate.
Arizona lawmakers passed legislation in 2006 that requires that public elementary, middle and junior high schools in school districts participate in the National School Lunch Program. High schools and public charter schools are not required to do the same.
The program provides meals to students from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. Reduced-price meals are available for students who come from families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level. To participate, schools must meet USDA requirements with their lunch menus.
Proposed changes to those requirements prompted Crandall to draw up the bill, he told the Tribune. The act that authorizes the program is up for renewal in Washington, D.C. In a note to fellow state lawmakers earlier this week, Crandall said his proposed tweak to state law would allow districts to opt out of participating if they feel the more stringent program would be financially detrimental to them.
"We know there are several new federal rules coming out on October 1, 2012 and the way the statute is written now, district K-8 grades are required to comply 100 percent with whatever the feds mandate. They have no recourse or options," Crandall wrote. "We are giving local control back and eliminating mandates at the same time. This is why the bill was supported by the Arizona School Boards Association. No one will be going off of the National School Lunch Program unless the new federal rules cause them to lose their shirt financially and they opt for a different way to feed children."
But the possibility that districts could opt out has prompted a lot of calls and e-mails from teachers to the AEA.
"Before there was a requirement to provide school lunch there were some that provided it and some that didn't. It created some inequities that were damaging to schools," Kilgore said. "We're not sure why this is needed. We've not been convinced as to why this is needed."
Janice Palmer of the Arizona School Boards Association said the issue here is to provide districts with options.
"The intention behind this is not for kids not to be fed. It's to provide districts with the flexibility to do the same thing - to feed kids that may cost less," she said. "I think the vast majority of the school districts may remain in the federal program, but there may be opportunity where a local school district can do it more efficiently, where a child will be well fed and nourished to be educated."
As of March 2011, Arizona had 529,117 children eligible to receive a free meal and 69,617 children eligible to receive a reduced-price meal, according to the state Department of Education.
A large percentage of East Valley students qualify for the program, including 73 percent of students in the Tempe Elementary School District, 58 percent of students in the Mesa Unified School District, 33 percent of students in the Chandler Unified School District and 27 percent of the Gilbert Unified School District.
Catherine Giza, director of the food and nutrition program for the Chandler district, said if the bill passes, she believes Chandler will continue to participate in the federal program.
"Over the years the department has adapted to changing regulations and anticipates the newest regulations will not have a significant impact. The department will continue to be innovative in how we provide services to the families of Chandler," she wrote in an email.
In fact, though it's not required, Chandler's high schools joined the program in the last two years because of the high number of students qualifying. The district serves more than 20,000 meals a day as part of the program.
"The (National School Lunch Program) NSLP affords us the opportunity to receive grant funding, participate in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Fuel Up to Play 60 and other partnerships," she said.
The Mesa district on average serves 30,800 free- or reduced-price lunches daily, said Loretta Zullo, the district's director of food services.
"We run a solvent meal program. Between labor costs and overhead, we're pretty close to breaking even with the entire meal program, free or reduced," she said.
Districts tally the free- or reduced-price lunches they serve then file that figure to receive reimbursement from the federal government.
Zullo said she is "anxiously" awaiting the final approved changes to the program, which would increase the required number of fruits, vegetables and whole grain products served, as well as change how districts can calculate how much they charge.
Under the first proposals put out, Zullo said it could have resulted in a lot of increased cost for the district, but she anticipated Mesa could weather it.
"It's a complicated formula," she said of the proposed way districts must charge for meals. "Districts may have to supplement (meal prices) from the general fund. Districts are not going to want to do that. They do not have the money to do that."
Now, the Mesa district - and others - use proceeds from ala cart food purchases and catering to keep meal prices low, she said.
Crandall said he became aware of the proposed federal changes through the company he operates with his family, CN Resource. The company's primary role is to audit school lunch programs, he said. It also owns one of the only USDA-approved menu writing programs. That takes up about 2 percent of his business, he said.
"I happen to be an expert at this topic. That's why I see the potential of harm to districts where others don't," he told the Tribune.
There has been some criticism that Crandall would benefit from the changes.
"If I were looking for a benefit, I would never run a bill to allow people to opt out of the school lunch program," he said.
His company does not currently do any auditing in Arizona, he said.
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