LITTLE ROCK – Thanks to a Senate bill that became law earlier this year, thousands of Arkansas students will qualify for free lunches at school.
Act 656 of 2023 was approved by an overwhelming majority of senators. It benefits children from families with low incomes by eliminating the requirement that they pay a reduced price for lunch. Instead, lunch is free.
If their family income is below 130% of the federal poverty level, children qualify for free meals. That equates to an income of $39,000 for a family of four.
Children in a family of four qualify for reduced priced meals if their income is more than $39,000 but less than $55,550 a year. That is between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level. The maximum amount that schools may charge for a reduced priced lunch is 40 cents.
During the height of the Covid pandemic, school meals were free to all students due to waivers in federal nutrition regulations. Those waivers have expired and schools are returning to the guidelines that were in place before the pandemic. Some parents need a reminder that they need to apply in order for their children to qualify for free lunches.
The application is free and the paperwork isn't difficult to fill out. Although the school year has already begun, it's not too late to apply. In fact, a family can apply midway through the school year if their financial situation changes. School officials are required to keep your financial information confidential.
Once the application is approved, nothing about the children's menu will change. They still will able to choose from the same menu options as students who pay full fare for meals.
There are additional benefits for applying. Students from low-income families may qualify for lower fees on college applications, and lower fees for taking standardized tests like Advanced Placement exams and college entrance tests like the ACT and the SAT. Some schools lower the fees that may be charged for participating in athletics and other varsity activities.
Last year about 46,000 students in Arkansas qualified for reduced-priced meals. There are about 477,000 students in Arkansas schools from kindergarten through grade 12.
Under Act 656, the state Education Department shall report every year to legislators on the Senate and House Education Committees by Nov. 15. The report shall be an overview of the state's school nutrition programs, with figures on how many children are approved and how many are denied free lunches.
Legislative auditors will audit the state's school nutrition program by Dec. 15, 2023, to determine the extent of school districts' participation in free lunch programs.
During the first two months of the state fiscal year, tax revenue came in at 3.2% above forecast. That amounts to about $33.2 million more than predicted by state budget officials.
Net revenues in all categories were above forecast. The increase in sales tax revenue was driven by purchases of motor vehicles, spending at restaurants and sales of retail items.
The state fiscal year began on July 1. We are now in Fiscal Year 2024.
Editor's note: Sen. Joshua Bryant represents District 32 in Arkansas. He and his family live in Rogers. He serves on the Committee of Education and the committee on City, County and Local Affairs