By Letitia Stein
Dec 9 (Reuters) - Over half of the nation's high-poverty schools are taking advantage of a new federal initiative intended to make it easier for U.S. children to eat nutritious cafeteria meals for free, federal officials said on Tuesday.
Nationwide, 51.5 percent of eligible schools have commenced offering free, federally funded meals to all their students without requiring the applications long used to prove low-income status, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
Some schools opted against participating for fear that not collecting the data would make it harder for them access other government education funds, a concern federal officials said was misplaced.
This is the first year that districts have the opportunity to eliminate family income-based free meal applications, long seen as a barrier to serving more meals under the $12 billion National School Lunch Program.
"It is such a clear, right, correct and moral thing to do," said Michael Hanson, superintendent of the Fresno Unified School District in California, highlighted as a model participant on a conference call with reporters.
The Fresno system of about 72,000 students is among some 2,000 districts participating in the Community Eligibility Provision of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, previously piloted in a few states.
Under the initiative, more than 6.4 million students at nearly 14,000 schools are receiving the free meals, according to statistics released by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
Agriculture Under Secretary Kevin Concannon said he was pleased by the preliminary numbers, but acknowledged that many of the districts opted out for fear of losing student income data used to apply for other government funds.
Federal officials reassured districts they would not be harmed, Concannon said.
"I expect we will see more schools coming in nationally," he told reporters.
Florida's Hillsborough County Public Schools, the nation's eighth-largest district with more than 200,000 students, was among those opting out.
"It's a win-win, but there are all these little kinks behind the scenes that have to be worked out," said Mary Kate Harrison, the Tampa-based district's general manger of student nutrition services, who is reassessing for next school year. (Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla.; Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky and Eric Walsh)