Saturday December 14, 2019
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Oregon Expands Federal Free Lunch Program

The meals expansion program is tucked away in a new tax package for schools

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Teacher Diana Feke helps Mason Baker during lunch at the Eastham Community Center Claskamas County Children's Commission Head Start, April 9, 2012, in Oregon City. VOA

Oregon is spending $40 million to dramatically expand its federal free breakfast and lunch program, ensuring that more than 60 percent of its 400,000 public school students will be included, the largest statewide effort in the country.

The program is based on providing free meals to any child whose family lives at up to three times the poverty level, which is $75,000 for a family of four.

New tax package

The meals expansion program is tucked away in a new tax package for schools, a sweeping $1 billion annual investment explicitly dedicated to boosting student performance. It will be paid for through a new half a percent tax on business.

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Oregon will allow 761 schools to provide free lunch and breakfast to approximately 345,000 students. Pixabay

Chicago and New York City are among some major cities that offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, but this is the only statewide program according to Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon.

“Hungry kids don’t think about education nearly as much as having something in their stomach,” said Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Democrat from Coos Bay who helped craft the legislation.

Oregon will allow 761 schools to provide free lunch and breakfast to approximately 345,000 students.

One in seven households is “food insecure,” according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy , meaning that families have trouble putting food on the table and often don’t know where they’ll get their next meal.

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At least 174,000 children have limited access to food, more than the population of Oregon’s second largest city, Eugene.

Hunger-Free Kids Act

At least 62% of students attend a school with high federal poverty rates. These schools can get federal assistance to provide free meals to all their students no matter their income levels under the 2011 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a policy championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

But even though these schools may qualify for assistance, not all of them take advantage of it because of low federal reimbursement rates. The reimbursement rate is different for each school, depending on the school’s poverty level.

Schools with lower reimbursement rates often choose to provide free meals only to students living about two times above the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that would require an income up to $50,000.

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Schools with lower reimbursement rates often choose to provide free meals only to students living about two times above the federal poverty level. Wikimedia Commons

Around a third of food insecure students in Oregon, however, live above that poverty threshold meaning they’re ineligible for free meals under the federal program, according to data from Feeding America .

Tim Sweeney, a superintendent in Oregon’s impoverished South Coast, said that his district runs a deficit because it chooses to take on the cost of feeding all its students. Many students are completely dependent on schools for food, he said.

But even with federal assistance, it costs around $25,000 a year to provide free breakfast and lunches, money Sweeney said could have gone to textbooks.

“Poverty is a huge deal here and so many students rely on schools to provide them with food and a warm place for shelter,” he said. “Food service may not be a winning game, but we know it means the world to these kids.”

Gov. Brown signs package

Gov. Kate Brown signed the school funding tax package, but it’s likely to be referred to the voters to decide in 2020, thanks to Oregon’s robust referendum process.

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Republicans, who make up the minority of the Legislature, sought to block the package by refusing to show up to the Capitol to vote, shutting down all business for a week. They returned Monday at which point the measure was swiftly approved.

Although the tax package was partisan, Roblan says this is the one provision that was never up for debate.

“This is a big buy for our state,” he said. “But there was no hesitation. This is the right thing to do.” (VOA)

Next Story

Opioid Settlement Talks Broaden ahead of First Federal Trial over Crisis

It would include $22 billion in cash over time plus up to $15 billion worth of overdose antidotes and treatment drugs, with distribution

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In this Sept. 11, 2019, photo, narcotics detective Paul Laurella retrieves unused medications from the police department's disposal box in Barberton, Ohio. Jury selection is set to begin Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. VOA

Efforts to settle thousands of lawsuits related to the nation’s opioid epidemic intensified Wednesday ahead of the scheduled start of arguments in the first federal trial over the crisis.

A person with knowledge of the negotiations told The Associated Press that three major drug distributors plus two manufacturers were working on the outlines of a settlement.

It would include $22 billion in cash over time plus up to $15 billion worth of overdose antidotes and treatment drugs, with distribution of those drugs valued at another $14 billion – a calculation of how much a distributor could charge for them.

Under the proposal, the distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson would pay a total of $18 billion over 18 years. Johnson & Johnson would pay $4 billion over time. Drugmaker Teva would contribute the drugs, but not cash.

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In this Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, file photo, narcotics detective Ben Hill, with the Barberton Police Department, shows two bags of medications that are are stored in their headquarters and slated for destruction in Barberton, Ohio. VOA

The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing and said the details of the deal could change.

A $50 billion framework was first reported Wednesday by The New York Times. Samantha Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee attorney general’s office, confirmed to the AP that that report “appears to be correct on the details of the tentative settlement framework.”

It’s not clear whether states and local governments will accept the deal.

“We await the fine print of the settlement framework so that we can work alongside the 2,600 communities we represent to determine the best path forward,” the lead lawyers for local governments said in a statement Wednesday. “Our priority when assessing settlement proposals is to ensure they will provide urgently-needed relief in the near term and that these resources will be directed exclusively toward efforts to abate the opioid epidemic.”

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The lawyers said the aim is “to secure funds that will aid law enforcement officers, medical professionals, and treatment facility staff around the country for the decades-long recovery process ahead.”

Drug companies and other state attorneys general who are leading the talks either did not return messages or comment.

The talks are picking up as a jury is being selected in Cleveland for a trial on claims against some companies in the drug industry being brought by the Ohio counties of Cuyahoga and Summit. They claim the companies engaged in a conspiracy that has damaged their communities should be held accountable.

Jury selection began Wednesday and could wrap up Thursday, with opening arguments scheduled Monday.

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A person with knowledge of the negotiations told The Associated Press that three major drug distributors plus two manufacturers were working on the outlines of a settlement. Pixabay

Johnson & Johnson has already settled with the two counties. If the other companies settle, too, it would leave only the pharmacy chain Walgreens – in its role as a distributor to its own stores – and the smaller distributor Henry Schein as defendants. It’s not clear whether the trial would go on in that case.

The defendants in the Cleveland trial include Actavis and Cephalon, drug companies now owned by Teva.e

All the companies say they complied with the law and supplied only drugs that doctors prescribed.

While the case concerns only claims for the two counties, it is a bellwether intended to show how legal issues might be resolved in more than 2,000 other lawsuits over the opioid crisis.

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In court Wednesday, lawyers for the defendants argued that the trial should be postponed in case potential jurors saw any of the coverage and would be tainted when learning of the massive amount of money possibly being discussed.

U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster said he didn’t believe many of the potential jurors would have been exposed to the stories but that he would question them to determine whether they were aware of the coverage.

A delay, he said, could push the trial into next year.

The other major question was how to select a dozen jurors for a trial over opioids in a region hit particularly hard by addictions and overdoses.

Questionnaires were sent to potential jurors in nine northeast Ohio counties, including Cuyahoga, which along with neighboring Summit County was chosen as the first plaintiff in a trial in what could become the most complicated class action lawsuit in U.S. history. Cuyahoga County is home to Cleveland, and Summit to the city of Akron.

The questionnaire asked potential jurors to answer questions about their and immediate family members’ experiences with prescription painkillers and the crisis itself.

They were asked to check off whether they had ever used 11 different prescription opioids. Had they or family members ever used heroin or illicit fentanyl? Have they ever been prescribed painkillers after surgery? Have they or a family member ever been treated for addiction? Have they ever overdosed?

Those with close connections to the crisis are expected to be excluded from serving on the jury.

Counting prescription drugs and illegal ones such as heroin and illicitly made fentanyl, opioids have been blamed for more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000. (VOA)