State support for meal reimbursements falls again

The California Department of Education announced Monday that the state school meal reimbursement will likely fall to 20 cents for breakfast and lunch beginning this month and to zero in June.

The current state reimbursement rate is about 22 cents for each free and reduced-rate breakfast and lunch.

For the past three years, state funding has failed badly to keep pace with demand because of poor forecasting. Each time, CDE has been forced to dramatically scale back or drop the state reimbursement in the final two months of the school year.

I don't want to make this not sound horrible, because this is, but the majority of (districts) should have known this was coming," said Phyllis Bramson-Paul, director of nutrition services at CDE. "We tell them at beginning of the year, Don't plan on 22 cents a meal for the entire year.'"

She added that the poor economy has created an upswing in the number of kids participating in the program, which would be good news if it didn't also mean that funding levels run out quicker. However, with more state and local leaders calling for lunch reform, there is a bit of optimism looking ahead to next year.

Anticipating an even greater participation in the free-and-reduced meal program, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed bumping up the state reimbursement to over $690 million in his 2010-11 budget for a contribution of 22 cents per meal, though food service providers note that program participation and need is difficult to predict.

The Schwarzenegger administration will release an updated budget proposal next week.

On the national level, Congress is now debating the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that would add six cents to the national reimbursement, which is currently $2.70 per meal for schools with free-and-reduced participation rates over 60 percent.

The federal bill would also provide grants for schools to purchase locally grown produce. After unanimously passing an agricultural committee last month, the bill is now pending on the Senate floor.

Also, President Obama has proposed adding $1 billion per year to child-nutrition programs including the National School Lunch Program. First lady Michelle Obama has made fighting child obesity a primary focus, and spent much of the past year speaking about the issue in a series of public and televised appearances.

California could certainly use the money. Over half of the state's public school children - about 3.2 million students - are eligible for the free or reduced-price meal program.

Under state law, school districts are required to provide low income students with one breakfast or lunch regardless of whether funding has been provided by the state or national government.

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