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Children eating school lunch
Fantastic news from Boston Public Schools:
The Boston Public Schools will serve free meals – both lunch and breakfast -- to all students, regardless of their income status this year. Boston becomes one of the largest cities in the nation to join a program aimed at serving healthy meals to more children and save families money.

“Every child has a right to healthy, nutritious meals in school, and when we saw a chance to offer these healthy meals at no cost to them, we jumped at the chance,” said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “This takes the burden of proof off our low-income families and allows all children, regardless of income, to know healthy meals are waiting for them at school every day.”

Over the summer BPS and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education joined a national program, currently available in 10 states and the District of Columbia. The program, called the “Community Eligibility Option,” waives meal fees for all children regardless of income status and is also being implemented in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and parts of New York City.

“Children can focus on learning when they are well-fed, and families can focus on education when they don’t have to budget for school meals every week,” said BPS Interim Superintendent John McDonough. “This program makes sense for students. We expect that every major city will join this national program in the next few years – and we are able to put Boston’s families at the forefront.”

Already, 78 percent of BPS students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals due to their income status. Many of those who do not qualify fall just beyond income limits. Previously, families had to fill out and return forms to qualify for the meals program. By entering into the Community Eligibility Option, BPS can waive all meal charges for all students. Parents do not need to take any action to participate. Students can continue to purchase extra food items, such as snacks, for a fee.

“Our mission is to educate every student, regardless of income or ability, and this helps us achieve that,” said Boston School Committee Chair Michael O’Neill. “We are proud to take part in this project because it will help ensure every child is ready to learn, regardless of income.”

“We moved quickly to advocate for the ability to participate in this initiative and are glad to be one of the first major cities to participate,” said Michael Peck, Director of BPS Food and Nutrition Services. “It is truly a win-win for our students and our city.”

“Community Eligibility is a great new option that helps low-income children have better access to healthy school meals and helps schools reduce administrative burdens,” said Jim Weill, President of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). “Boston Public Schools has been a leader in the effort to increase participation in school meals, and FRAC applauds the City for quickly embracing this opportunity which will benefit every BPS student.”

Last year, BPS launched a universal breakfast program that waived charges for all students for morning meals. This meant that families who did not previously qualify for free-or-reduced price meals saved approximately $230 per child.

The Community Eligibility Option means families will now save an additional $405 to $455 per child per year. The cost of lunch was previously $2.25 for elementary students and $2.50 for middle and high school students.

In total, the lunch charges alone added up to approximately $943,000 per year for families through reduced- or full-price meals last school year. However, BPS only collected about $585,000 of this total due to allowances for individual hardships or other situations.

Under the new program, federal meal reimbursements to BPS are expected to increase. This means that, even though the District would not collect money from students at cash registers, total meal revenue would increase by approximately $2.7 million per year.
 

WPA school lunch program poster.
More on the program from the Food Research and Action Center:
Community eligibility is the newest option available for allowing schools with high percentages of low-income children to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. It increases participation by children in the school meal programs, reduces labor costs for schools, and increases federal revenues. In short, it allows for a healthier student body and a healthier school meal budget.

Included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, community eligibility completely eliminates paper applications. Instead, schools are reimbursed through a formula based on the number of “identified students” – those certified without application for free school meals because they are in foster care or Head Start, are homeless, migrant or living in households that receive SNAP/Food Stamps, TANF cash assistance or the Food Distribution on Indian Reservation benefits. The option has been available in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan since the start of the 2011-2012 school year. Washington D.C., New York (pdf), Ohio and West Virginia began offering the option to school districts in the 2012-2013 school year. Georgia, Florida, Maryland and Massachusetts have been added for the 2013-2014 school year.  Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, all schools nationwide that meet the 40 percent identified student threshold will be eligible to participate in this option.

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