Feds expand student meal program

Feds expand student meal program

(Calif.) There’s no such thing as a free lunch, or so the saying goes, but don’t try telling that to the tens of thousands of students across the state and nation who can now eat both breakfast and the midday meal for free – regardless of income.

Thanks to the expansion of a federal meals program launched as a pilot four years ago, more schools and districts in high poverty areas that meet qualifications can feed their entire student population two meals a day for no charge.

“For our district, it’s a home run because we are able to say that every student gets to eat a healthy breakfast and lunch every day,” said Jose Alvarado, director of food services for the Fresno Unified School District, which debuted the program beginning last week with the start of the school year. “It’s a great program for our kids.”

Rolled out in 2010 under the Obama administration’s Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, the Community Eligibility Provision has, until this year, been piloted in 10 states and Washington, D.C. The goal of the act was to provide healthy, nutritious meals to millions of children nationwide who eat at school, and to provide funding to streamline and expand food service where possible.

The Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, allows districts and schools to calculate eligibility based on overall student population data rather than on a per-individual student basis.

To qualify, 40 percent of a school’s or a school district’s population must come from families receiving federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They may also be homeless or come from foster homes.

This is the first year most states, including California, have been able to participate in the program, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In California, 21 school food authorities – the governing bodies which operate child nutrition programs for one or more schools - have applied to implement CEP, according to the California Department of Education. Of those, 18 have been approved with 47 sites, and one is pending approval.

The deadline for applications is August, 31.

According to Fresno’s Alvarado, the CEP program streamlines the paperwork and reporting process for parents, schools and districts, and virtually eliminates backups in school lunch lines because no money has to be collected. Families do not need to turn in free and reduced-price meal applications, and schools do not need to process applications or conduct verification.

Also, because meals are free to all students in eligible schools, it eliminates the stigma often directed toward those students receiving meal subsidies.

And because hunger can negatively impact a student’s success in the classroom, the program makes sure more children have the opportunity to eat a healthy meal, regardless of income.

Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer service, told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette last week that when schools provide breakfast, fewer students go to the school nurse with complaints of headaches and stomachaches. He also said attendance picks up.

“I feel that providing free meals across the board gives every child the opportunity to receive nourishment and well-balanced meals that contribute to overall learning,” Curtistine Walker, food service director for Pittsburg city schools, told the Post-Gazette. “Just because a child doesn’t qualify [for federal aid] doesn’t mean there’s not a hunger issue there.”

Community eligibility has shown great success in the 11 states that are already offering it, according to the USDA. In schools that offered community eligibility for two years, 13 percent more students ate lunch daily and the number of students eating breakfast – the most important meal of the day – increased 25 percent during in the same period.

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service administers 15 nutrition assistance programs. In addition to the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, other programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Summer Food Service Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). For more information, visit www.fns.usda.gov.