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How Would Akin's Proposal to Cut Federal Funding for School Lunches Affect the Ozarks?

Photo Credit: Springfield Public Schools

Republican US Senate Candidate Todd Akin says he would consider putting an end to the Federal School Lunches Program, leaving the tab to be picked up by the states, rather than the federal government.  The program provides money for low-income school kids across the nation to eat school breakfasts and lunches for free, or at a reduced price. KSMU’s Shane Franklin talked to local schools and state officials to ask how this proposal would affect them, and has this report. 

According to data from the Springfield Public School district for 2011 and 2012, nearly 14,000 students--that's over half of all the students in the district--are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program. 

Eligibility is based on income. So, for example, a kid who's part of a household that makes less than $24,000 annually for a family of three doesn't have to pay a penny for lunch.

The federal government reimburses the school district $2.88 for students who don't pay for their lunches, and $2.48 for every student on a reduced-price lunch plan.

In Springfield alone, this amounts to over $7 million in federal reimbursements to the school district every year.

Congressman Todd Akin, at a recent campaign event in Springfield, talked to us about his suggestion to eliminate federal funding for the school lunches program.

“My recommendations, and of course they can be taken out of context and misunderstood, [have] been that maybe it would be better to do school lunches at the state level. I don’t know the efficiencies of that, but I think it’s something we should look at.”

Akin says it's in the American spirit to find innovative ways to solve problems. He says the states need to be addressing their own issues, and the federal government should be focused on paying off debt.

The Republican congressman emphasizes that he isn't saying those children should go hungry; he's simply saying he's not sure it's the federal government's job to feed them.

His opponent in the US Senate race, incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, disagrees.

Caitlin Legecki is the communications director for "McCaskill 2012," the senator's reelection campaign.  She says Akin's idea on school lunches doesn't have much support in Congress.

“The important thing to note is that President Harry Truman signed this into law in 1946 because he knew that it was in our national interest to make sure that students are well fed and paying attention. That’s why it has always been conducted at the federal level, and it’s important to know that if Todd Akin had been in the Senate the last time they voted on this, which was 2010, he would have been the only Senator in the United States of America to vote against it.”

Since Akin's proposal suggests that states take over part of that responsibility, we wanted to hear from the department that would likely oversee that transition:  the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE.  Sarah Potter is the communications coordinator for DESE.  She says that taking on the extra expense of feeding children at school would cost Missouri around $250 million a year.

“The state budget right now is pretty tight, and we're already severely underfunded in the State Foundation Formula, and that’s the money that goes to the schools to support the schools right now. Adding another $250 million would be very difficult to replace in the state budget.”

Finding the money to keep children fed at school is an issue facing the entire state, not just urban school districts like Springfield.

Brent Blevins is the superintendent of Forsyth Schools, where he says over 70% of students are eligible for either free or reduced lunches.

“It’s crucial for us that those students receive that federal assistance for the simple fact that it’s obvious you have to meet their basic needs before you can educate them.  And so, students that go to class with hungry stomachs are not going to be physically, in the state, to be able to be educated. It’s crucial for all districts, but obviously for ours in particular, [having] such a high [percentage] of free and reduced lunch,” he said.

Blevins says that if the National School Lunches Program were scrapped and Missouri were left with the bill, he fears programs and staffing would be affected in Forsyth.  He says further cuts would have to take place from their already increasingly tight budget.

According to Theresa Bledsoe, a spokeswoman for Springfield Public Schools, there are some schools in Springfield where about 95% of students are eligible for the federal program.

For KSMU News, I’m Shane Franklin.