Oregon is spending $40 million to dramatically expand its federal free breakfast and lunch program, ensuring that more than 60 percent of its 400,000 public school students will be included, the largest statewide effort in the country.
The program is based on providing free meals to any child whose family lives at up to three times the poverty level, which is $75,000 for a family of four.
The meals expansion program is tucked away in a new tax package for schools, a sweeping $1 billion annual investment explicitly dedicated to boosting student performance. It will be paid for through a new half a percent tax on business.
Chicago and New York City are among some major cities that offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, but this is the only statewide program according to Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon.
“Hungry kids don’t think about education nearly as much as having something in their stomach,” said Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Democrat from Coos Bay who helped craft the legislation.
Oregon will allow 761 schools to provide free lunch and breakfast to approximately 345,000 students.
One in seven households is “food insecure,” according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy , meaning that families have trouble putting food on the table and often don’t know where they’ll get their next meal.
At least 174,000 children have limited access to food, more than the population of Oregon’s second largest city, Eugene.
At least 62% of students attend a school with high federal poverty rates. These schools can get federal assistance to provide free meals to all their students no matter their income levels under the 2011 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a policy championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.
But even though these schools may qualify for assistance, not all of them take advantage of it because of low federal reimbursement rates. The reimbursement rate is different for each school, depending on the school’s poverty level.
Schools with lower reimbursement rates often choose to provide free meals only to students living about two times above the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that would require an income up to $50,000.
Around a third of food insecure students in Oregon, however, live above that poverty threshold meaning they’re ineligible for free meals under the federal program, according to data from Feeding America .
Tim Sweeney, a superintendent in Oregon’s impoverished South Coast, said that his district runs a deficit because it chooses to take on the cost of feeding all its students. Many students are completely dependent on schools for food, he said.
But even with federal assistance, it costs around $25,000 a year to provide free breakfast and lunches, money Sweeney said could have gone to textbooks.
“Poverty is a huge deal here and so many students rely on schools to provide them with food and a warm place for shelter,” he said. “Food service may not be a winning game, but we know it means the world to these kids.”
Gov. Kate Brown signed the school funding tax package, but it’s likely to be referred to the voters to decide in 2020, thanks to Oregon’s robust referendum process.
Republicans, who make up the minority of the Legislature, sought to block the package by refusing to show up to the Capitol to vote, shutting down all business for a week. They returned Monday at which point the measure was swiftly approved.
Although the tax package was partisan, Roblan says this is the one provision that was never up for debate.
“This is a big buy for our state,” he said. “But there was no hesitation. This is the right thing to do.”