ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal officials have granted New Mexico a one-year reprieve on a paperwork requirement that potentially threatened free meals at schools with a high percentage of low-income students.
The USDA had ordered the collection of new eligibility data from the 348 New Mexico schools that provide free breakfast and lunches under a provision of the National School Lunch Program.
The directive came after a USDA evaluation of the state Public Education Department’s Student Nutrition Bureau in 2012. Federal evaluators concluded the state agency had insufficient or missing data to support some schools’ continued participation in the program.
USDA regional administrator Bill Ludwig, of Dallas, told the Journal this week he didn’t know why the documentation was missing, whether the schools failed to submit it, PED didn’t require it or perhaps the information was lost.
“We just know the data was not there,” he said in a telephone interview.
The USDA originally ordered the data collection to begin this fall. That would have required the counting of meals and taking new applications from students.
But over the past two months, the New Mexico School Nutrition Association, the nonprofit New Mexico Appleseed organization and the state’s Democratic delegation in Congress – all requested a delay in the required data collection.
They expressed concerns that schools around the state could not meet the deadline, thereby putting the free meals at risk.
PED spokesman Larry Behrens told the Journal in an email this week, “We did mention to them (USDA) at an April 10th meeting that the FY15 timeline would be tight, but we never asked for an extension.”
The state is responsible for administering the program that provides free meals, while the USDA provides the funding.
“This is a milestone,” said Deming Public Schools student nutrition director Ginger Jones of the USDA decision. “Quite honestly I didn’t think that it would go in that direction.”
Jones said the federal response this week was good news for her high-poverty southern New Mexico school district of 5,400 students, all of whom receive both free breakfast and lunch courtesy of the federal government.
“I just want to make sure that our babies are fed and taken care of,” she added.
More than 77,000 students were fed under the program this school year.
Ludwig said USDA officials “discussed it at length and felt we needed to give New Mexico more time… Our job is not to take disadvantaged children, hungry children off these programs.”
Under the 34-year-old meal program, once initial base year documentation is established, schools and school districts can request extensions every four years provided they submit socio-economic data to PED showing the economic circumstances haven’t changed.
The program is supposed to reduce paperwork and simplify the logistics of operating school meals, eliminating the need for cashiers and lunch tickets.
USDA officials say they decided to grant flexibility to New Mexico on the mandate because of the rollout of another “universal feeding” program beginning this summer.
Under a law enacted in 2010, the new Community Eligibility Program is expected to further streamline the schools’ eligibility certification process, but preparations for the program in New Mexico have been problematic.
Ludwig said his agency had heard that PED sent out the wrong deadlines for schools to comply with the new program’s requirements.
“We reviewed them. They were incorrect,” Ludwig said. “We have told the state they need to correct those time frames.” PED officials last week denied sending out any “misinformation” to schools.
Officials from the national and regional offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture arrived in New Mexico this week to try to iron out other technical problems that have clouded the rollout.
New Mexico schools currently offering free meals can opt to switch to the new program, which relies on state Human Services Department information about recipients of other federal assistance, such as food stamps.
“If the school district can match its enrollment with those (federal assistance lists) kids that are on those programs are automatically eligible,” said Cynthia Long, deputy administrator for Child Nutrition Programs at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“The beauty of (the new program) is you do universal feeding and there’s no application involved, which makes it simpler for the families, makes it simpler for the schools. So for a school whose numbers work it can really be a good option.”
Jones, of the Deming school district, said the new meal program won’t work for all her district’s schools because of the number of low-income “international students” whose parents live outside the U.S. and aren’t eligible for other federal assistance programs.