Students at Jefferson Elementary School won't have to bring a lunch box or ask parents for lunch money when school starts this fall.
All the children at the Richland school -- regardless of their family's financial status -- will be offered breakfast and lunch at no charge, thanks to a federal law passed four years ago.
"We felt that trying it out at our most needy school was the thing to do to make sure it is economically feasible," said Denise Christensen, Richland's nutrition services director.
The Pasco and Kennewick school districts also are considering taking advantage of the federal provision that will pay for free meals for all students in schools where many already come from low-income families.
But some district officials are approaching the issue cautiously, as the regulations only provide full compensation under specific circumstances and could have unforeseen consequences.
"It doesn't look likely right now (for the 2014-15 school year) because there are too many unanswered questions," said Sam Shick, Kennewick's nutrition services director.
Most districts offer students from low-income families free and reduced price meals by receiving financial aid from the federal government. Those federal payments can be significant, with the Kennewick School District receiving more than $4.5 million in federal food aid during the 2013-14 school year.
Congress passed the Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, but it went into effect nationally this month. Schools where at least 40 percent of students receive free or reduced price meals are eligible and whole districts can qualify under that same standard.
That means the Kennewick and Pasco school districts could qualify for additional federal aid to provide student meals, as more than half of their students already receive meals at little or no cost. At the individual school level, every school in Pasco, 19 of 25 Kennewick schools and eight of 15 schools in Richland meet the 40 percent threshold.
Federal officials and district administrators said benefits of the provision are a reduction in administrative costs, less paperwork for families and eliminating the need to collect meal payments from students in a lunch line. They also point at how the approach has been effective in states where it was implemented early.
In the end, more students would be served, including those qualified for help to begin with but who never received it.
"Some people don't even know the program is available," said Randy Nunamaker, Pasco's executive director of operations.
Though families would no longer have to file paperwork to receive free meals, the onus would still be on the districts to verify that the schools qualify for the additional aid. An inaccurate tally could lead to the district having to return some dollars or face a penalty, Nunamaker said.
Only schools that already have student populations where 83.5 percent or more of students from low-income families would have the cost of meals fully covered.
Richland school officials expect the new program to break even at Jefferson Elementary, where about 70 percent of the school's 398 students qualified for free or reduced meals in May 2013, according to the most recent state data.
Schools that fall between the minimum 40 percent level and up would receive additional federal aid but the district would have to cover the difference.
"There aren't local funds available to cover that cost," Shick said.
There's also a possible risk to other district dollars, Shick said. Districts could see reduced Title I payments, federal dollars aimed at helping students from low-income families academically, as they are determined by how many students qualified for free and reduced price meals.
Kennewick and Pasco school officials will spend the next year looking at how their food service programs could be affected by providing free meals at given schools. That includes watching other districts, such as Richland, take the leap and see what happens.
"We want to do what's right for the kids and community," Nunamaker said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald