By Suzanne Perez Tobias

The Wichita Eagle

(MCT) Wichita will not participate in a new program that would offer free meals to every student regardless of family income -- at least not this school year, officials said.

"A final decision on future participation has not yet been made," said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

But for the coming year, the state's largest district does not plan to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program designed to combat child hunger by reducing paperwork and the stigma of applying for low-cost meals.

"We are continuing to evaluate the program," Arensman said. The district potentially could apply next year.

Groups that advocate against childhood hunger say the program, available for the first time this year to high-poverty schools in Kansas -- including 59 in Wichita -- would help ensure that low-income children have access to two healthy meals while they're at school.

School officials in Wichita and elsewhere said a tight deadline, logistical concerns and unanswered questions about cost likely would prevent them from applying. Districts have until Aug. 31 to apply.

So far only a handful of districts have said they plan to participate, said Cheryl Johnson, child nutrition and wellness director for the Kansas Department of Education.

Topeka schools will take the lead among major Kansas districts, Johnson said, implementing the program at 13 high-poverty schools this fall. Hutchinson and the Kickapoo Nation also are close to submitting applications, she said.

Districts qualify for the program if at least one school has 40 percent or more students who qualify for free meals without applying. These include students from households that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and other programs, or those who are homeless, migrants, in foster care or in Head Start.

The program aims to feed more needy children by doing away with the application process that may confuse or dissuade some families. At participating schools, all children would be able to eat breakfast and lunch at no cost, no questions asked.

A Wichita elementary school student who qualifies for reduced-price lunch would save about $120 a year on school meals under the program. A student paying full price would save about $570 a year.

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle