Dallas School District Elects to Join USDA Free Meal Program

The Dallas Independent School District announced that it will join other cities across the nation by providing free lunch and breakfast to every student at school as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) free-meal program.

The district said it has qualified for USDA free-meal program like several other Texas school districts and the agriculture department will no longer link the cost of meals to students' family income, according to Matthew Haag of Dallas News.

Dallas ISD will now become one of the nation's largest districts to participate. The free-meal program was launched in 1980 by the agriculture department and has expanded rapidly in the last 2 years.

"It's a wonderful benefit," said Dora Rivas, Dallas ISD's executive director of food and child nutrition services. "It's about paperwork and efficiencies, but I think the biggest winners in this are going to be students."

Cafeteria changes apply to every student regardless of family income, but only meals will be free, not snacks.

According to Rivas, the new free-meal program will also eliminate the stigma some students feel when they eat for free or cheaper than others. "Now everyone will go through the line and students won't think he has money and I don't," she said.

The district has decided to make the switch after 89% of its students last year qualified for a free or reduced-price meal. A family of four must earn less than $30,615 a year to qualify for free meals.

Most Dallas ISD students last year ate for free, while about 5% paid the reduced price of 40 cents per meal. As more students qualified for meal support, administrative costs increased, Rivas said. The USDA allows districts to opt into the no-cost program when it becomes more cost effective.

According to the district officials, this new overhaul will help save money by eliminating 40 jobs and paperwork. The district has spent about $300,000 annually on workers who process applications and on public information. However, the district will also lose some revenue it generates by collecting the full lunch price of $2.93 from 11% of students. Now, those students will pay nothing.

District officials, however, hope students will now have extra money to buy snacks. "There might be increased revenues as it relates to that," Rivas said.

The new meal-program should relieve a burden on parents, who have applied each year for subsidized meals. The district will continue this year to collect student applications for those meals. The USDA will reimburse the district for the new free program based on the number of applicants this year and their family incomes.

The federal government reimburses the district $3.01 per free meal and $2.61 for a reduced price meal. Parents would not have to turn in applications again until 2017, when the district reapplies for the program.

The push to provide adequate nutrition to all students isn't just happening in the US. In London, the Tower Hamlets borough adopted a program to offer free lunches at the beginning of this year, a free lunch program serving as an example for the entire United Kingdom. Shortly after Tower Hamlets adopted the plan, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats announced that free lunches would now be offered to students in the first three grades in all of England's primary schools.

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