When U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited Castle Hills Elementary on Friday afternoon, the nutrition services head at North East Independent School District made the case for a program that allows low-income schools to offer free lunch to all students, regardless of economic status.

NEISD students at the 29 campuses that offer free lunch campus-wide benefit tremendously, said Sharon Glosson, the district’s executive director of school nutrition.

“Our students in those schools are eating for free, no matter their individual income, and it has helped with unpaid meal debt and it has helped create positive conversations where cashiers aren’t haggling over money,” Glosson said.

Addressing Perdue directly, Glosson asked for “anything that strengthens” the program, called the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP.

Perdue, visiting the elementary school for a roundtable discussion on school lunches, responded only that the issue was outside the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Such a request should go to Congress, he said.

Glosson’s ask and the Friday roundtable came at a time when a proposed USDA rule change could reduce the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch and limit the number of campuses eligible for CEP.

The change, proposed last summer, would prohibit states from automatically qualifying families receiving social support services like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. If states don’t have this ability, only families who meet SNAP’s income requirements would be eligible for the services.

NEISD Superintendent Sean Maika wrote a letter to Perdue in August, expressing concern that some of his students would no longer qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under the change. This could in turn impact the number of campuses that qualified for CEP, he wrote.

“Our School Nutrition Services staff believes that reducing the number of children who are certified through SNAP will result in fewer schools qualifying for CEP and higher operational costs for our breakfast and lunch programs,” Maika wrote. “I implore you to consider carefully the impact of the proposed revisions on working poor families and school districts.

“More importantly, please consider the impact on school children who may not be ready to learn if they are not receiving adequate nutrition.”

A USDA analysis indicated as many as 982,000 children would no longer be directly certified for free or reduced-price school meals. Roughly 45 percent of these kids would still be eligible for free meals and 51 percent would likely be eligible for reduced-price meals. All would have to apply for this benefit, the analysis states.

NEISD officials said the district never received a response to Maika’s letter and they expect the proposed rule change to move forward. Outside of Glosson’s request, the proposed rule change did not come up during the 40-minute roundtable discussion.

A discussion on school lunches takes place at Castle Hills Elementary School.

After the discussion, Perdue again said concerned individuals should look to Congress as an answer.

“If we want to make all school lunches totally free for everyone, that’s up to Congress,” Perdue said. “If Congress believes that we as Americans should pay for school lunches in a gratis kind of way, then they are capable of doing that. That’s not the law right now, as you know.”

At the end of the roundtable discussion, Perdue announced new proposed rule changes that would provide further flexibility to school lunch professionals when designing menus and ordering food for students, the secretary of agriculture said.

The new changes will allow schools to reduce the amount of fruits and vegetables required in breakfasts and lunches. The proposed changes, detailed in a 167-page document posted online Friday afternoon, would eliminate a rule that requires the monitoring of synthetic trans fats in school meals and would allow the sale of calorie-free flavored waters to students in all grade levels.

These changes will work to make meals more enticing to kids and reduce the number of meals thrown in the trash or wasted, Perdue said Friday.

In an article published Friday in The Washington Post, some experts said the changes will roll back stricter nutritional standards put in place under former President Barack Obama and make it easier for students to choose high-calorie foods like pizza, burgers, or french fries over healthier options.

The public will be able to comment on the proposed new rule changes starting Tuesday.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.