An experimental program means families no longer have to fill out paperwork proving they can’t afford the meals.
Starting this school year, Boston Public Schools will offer both a free breakfast and free lunch to all students, regardless of their ability to pay.
The free meals are part of an experimental federal program the city of Boston is participating in, known as the ‘community eligibility option,’ which eliminates the need for families to fill out paperwork to prove they qualify for free or reduced-price meals for their children.
Students will still have to pay for snacks and other extra items if they want them.
Other cities that are expected to participate in the free meal program include Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and parts of New York City.
In Atlanta, 58 out of the 100 schools in the Atlanta Public School district qualified for the program. The school district pays for the meals and then is reimbursed by the federal government. In order to qualify for the program, at least 40 percent of students must either receive free or reduced-cost lunches.
Michael Peck is the director of food and nutritional services for the Boston Public Schools district. He said the new free breakfast and lunch program “allows our staff and our cashiers to focus on what’s really important and that’s ensuring students going through the line have the full reimbursable meal, that they have everything on their plate because that’s our core business: feeding children.”
Boston Mayor Tom Menino agreed that the program was sensible and said, “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.”
He said allowing all children to have free breakfast and lunch without filling out paperwork “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.”
The community eligibility option was first introduced in 2010 as part of the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act, which is part of first lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to end childhood obesity.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees school food programs and initially selected nine states and the District of Columbia to participate in a pilot program to see how a universal free breakfast and lunch program would perform.
Massachusetts was admitted into the program this year; it is not clear yet whether any other school districts in the state will participate in the program this school year. However the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education anticipates that as word about the program spreads, other school districts in the state will express interest in launching the program as well.
“It definitely streamlines the process and reduces the time it takes for students going through the lunch line,” said Katie Millett, executive director for the Office of Nutrition, Health and Safety Programs at the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “I would think some of our larger districts will look at it.”
Boston’s socialized cafeteria system
While extending a free breakfast and lunch program to all students may sound like a dramatic increase, Boston Public Schools officials reported that about 78 percent of the students already qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Officials added that many of those who did not qualify in years past just barely made more than the income limit.
While the free lunches are new, the school district decided last year to waive charges for the school’s breakfast program. The free breakfast program reportedly saved families around $230 per child last year and the new free lunch program is expected to save families an additional $405 to $455 per child this year alone.
By offering free breakfasts to all students, school officials reported that they “eliminated an awkward socioeconomic divide that unfolded in some schools every morning, where low-income students would receive free milk, pastries, or other items in their classrooms, while more affluent students often went without.”
As reported in the Boston Globe, those students who receive either a free or reduced-price lunch blend in more at lunch-time, since students often use ID cards or pin numbers when going through the cafeteria lines. However, some students have paid for their lunch with cash.
School officials said the decision to extend the program to all students was for a variety of reasons, but explained that many families who qualify for a reduced-price or free lunch often fail to fill out an application.
While more than 100 languages are spoken among families in the Boston Public School system, the forms are not available in all languages and sometimes the paperwork simply gets lost in all the other papers students bring home.
A full-price lunch costs $2.25 for elementary students and $2.50 for middle and high school students. A reduced-price lunch costs 40 cents. If a family is unable to pay for their lunch, cafeteria workers charge the lunch to an account that has been set up for the family. The school usually pays the bill itself and then seeks payment from those families, just like bill collectors.
Last year the school district was unable to collect $350,000 in unpaid lunches and had to use funds from other parts of the budget to cover the loss.
“We are caught between a rock and a hard place,” Peck said. “Many principals have told me, ‘The family doesn’t have the money; what do I do?’”
Another reason the school district wanted to extend the free breakfast and lunch program to all students was to increase the number of students who eat a school lunch. Boston school officials reported that last year about 64 percent of students ate a school-prepared lunch, but they wanted to increase that number by 10 to 20 percent.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, an organization that promotes school-prepared lunches, since the free lunch program has launched in other states, more and more students are eating food from the cafeteria.
“Whether those kids were packing lunches or doing without or running to a corner store — I don’t know,” said Madeleine Levin, senior policy analyst for the organization’s school breakfast and lunch program. “But more kids are eating the meals after this model is put into place … it kind of levels the playing field and lets all kids get free meals without the stigma.”
The organization declined to release statistics backing up their claim to the Boston Globe, but said it would release a report with those numbers in the coming weeks.
Jim Weill is the president of the Food Research and Action Center. He agreed with Levin and said, “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,” and added that his organization applauded the Boston Public Schools for “quickly embracing this opportunity” that will benefit every student.