- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska has one of the nation’s lowest participation rates in a new federal program intended to provide school meals to children, according to a report released last week.

The study by the Food Research and Action Center found Nebraska is ranked second-lowest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the number of eligible schools that are using the program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision.

Just nine of Nebraska’s 112 eligible schools chose to participate in the program last year, according to the report. New Hampshire was the only state with a lower participation rate. The nation saw an increase of nearly 4,000 participating schools in the last 2015-16 school year.

The program, which began in 2014, reimburses high-poverty schools that agree to provide free lunches and breakfasts to all students, not just those who would normally qualify.

Advocates say providing universal free lunches helps reduce the stigma that low-income students may feel if their peers notice. It also reduces the workload for schools because administrators don’t have to keep track of who is receiving free, reduced and paid lunches, or try to collect from paid-lunch families that owe money.

Breakfast policies vary by school and district in Nebraska, with some providing meals each morning and others offering no program at all. Many schools in Nebraska have opted not to offer breakfast programs because of the administrative costs, the number of students, or a lack of staff.

“Child hunger is a barrier to the success in the classroom,” said James Goddard, economic justice director for the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest. “Kids perform better when they’re not hungry.”

Goddard said Nebraska schools have avoided participating because of a quirk in state law that many feared would have cost them state aid.

Under current state law, families qualify for the free lunch program by completing a household income application or participating in other benefit programs, such as welfare or food stamps. The applications are also used to determine the size of a district’s “poverty allowance” when calculating how much state aid they will receive.

Under the new federal program, however, families no longer have to fill out household income applications and schools don’t have to process them.

“It’s altogether a more efficient process for administrators and staff to deliver meals for high-need schools,” said Julia Tse, a policy associate for the Omaha-based Voices for Children in Nebraska.

Not having to fill out the forms reduces the workload for parents and schools, but it could also reduce the amount of state aid for schools.

On Friday, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow those schools to join the program without having to lose state aid. Gov. Pete Ricketts has yet to take action on it.

State education officials said they’re working to promote the program among schools.

“We’ve already had quite a bit of interest for next year,” said Sharon Davis, the department’s nutrition services program director.

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