Districts Rush to Free School Meals Thanks to 2010 Law

Thanks to the Community Eligibility Option created by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, all students in Utica, New York will be getting their school breakfasts and lunches for free. The federally funded program allows communities with high percentage of students who qualify to receive free or reduced priced lunches to apply for the program as a whole district and receive a grant that covers the meal costs for everyone.

Although the Community Eligibility Option was opened to New York schools in 2011, the district wasn't aware of it until the first application deadline had passed. According to the application, 75% of Utica students qualify for federally subsidized meals while only 25% pay full price.

When Barbara Clark, a third-grade teacher at Christopher Columbus Elementary School, heard the news, she was surprised.

"It's a good idea because everybody knows that if kids don't have good nutrition they're not going to be able to concentrate the best way they can," she said.

Not only will it help the students academically, it will also create a more equal playing field, Clark said. The program also will help relieve the administration costs associated with managing free and reduced lunches under the old system.

According to Keshia Clukey of the Utica Observer-Dispatch, the Community Eligibility Option made the process of getting free meals to the students much easier. Even though families in other income assistance programs were automatically enrolled in the free school meal program, the district was still required to track down the children's parents or guardians in order to get them to fill out income information forms.

Providing free meals sans the paperwork was also what prompted Boston, Massachusetts to apply for the free meal option. The city schools serve over 57,000 children, so they're set to realize even bigger gains from enrolling students into the free lunch programs en masse – and skipping the resource-intensive documentation process – than cities like the much smaller Utica. Similarly to Utica, nearly 75% of Boston students qualified for the federal free/reduced lunch program last year, and according to district officials, more would have done so if the parents had filled out applications.

Parents fail to do so for a variety of reasons, such as the forms being printed in a language they cannot read — more than 100 languages are spoken among Boston school families — or getting lost in a mountain of paperwork and notices that students bring home.

The problem can come with a steep financial price for families and the School Department alike.

According to James Vazniz of The Boston Globe, another benefit of the Community Eligibility Option is freeing schools from chasing down parents who are in arrears to their kids' school lunch accounts. Last year, Boston's School Department recorded losses of nearly $350,000 in unpaid meal tabs.

The US Department of Agriculture, which oversees school food programs, started experimenting with universal free breakfasts and lunches three years ago, as part of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act, a centerpiece of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative to end childhood obesity.

To participate, a certain percentage of students in a district must qualify for free meals. That threshold — in light of the absence of student applications for free meals — is developed through a complex formula that includes such factors as the percentage of families in a community who receive food stamps.

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