When New York City public school students returned to class this year, they didn’t have to worry about whether they could afford lunch. The district is now one of many throughout the country offering universal free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision, part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. As operators look to mimic similar operations at their districts, however, they’re finding there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to feeding kids for free. Here's what they're uncovering.
1. Numbers game
While the Community Eligibility Provision has been around since 2010 and available nationwide for three years, many schools are just now taking advantage of the program due to changes at the state level. More than 9.7 million children participated in the program in the 2016-2017 school year, up from
8.5 million in 2015-2016, the Food Research & Action Center reports.
New York City Public Schools began offering universal free meals through CEP this year after the state’s new way of tracking families who qualify for benefits such as Medicaid revealed the district had enough students at the correct level to qualify. Last year, the district made $446.1 million in sales to its 975,685 students, according to Technomic’s Noncommercial Digital Resource Library.
School districts need to make sure that offering free lunch through the CEP won’t eliminate other government funding. Officials at Euclid City Schools in Euclid, Ohio, which began offering universal free lunch this year, made sure the program wouldn’t come with any unintended side effects.
“We needed to make sure it wasn’t going to offset any of our other federally funded programs,” says Audrey Holtzman, the district’s marketing and public relations coordinator. “We had to do some research because we wanted to make sure that it was sustainable and something that would be beneficial for everyone.” After starting universal free lunch, the district’s meal count was up almost 20% in September compared to 2016. Holtzman says the district hopes others will adopt a universal free meal program in the future.
2. Community support
In addition to offering free and reduced meals to students who qualify, Oak Hills Local School District in Cincinnati has come up with a way to offer meals for other struggling students.
“We have those kids who fall through the cracks,” says Linda Eichenberger, food service director. “They are the kids who don’t qualify for a free or even sometimes a reduced meal, but they still don’t really have any money.”
Stemmed from an idea from an Oak Hills staff member, the district’s Adopt-a-Student Program raises funds during the year to buy lunch for struggling students. The district uses multiple ways of funding, including passing a donation bucket around at football games and allowing faculty and staff to donate a portion of their paychecks.
The program’s students are identified by counselors, so free lunches are going to those who need it most. While future expansion of the program to include more schools in the district is not out of the question, Eichenberger says the district is focusing on high school students
She also feels the trend of offering universal free lunch will continue, and she hopes the government will make it easier for schools to participate.
“I believe that most districts want to help those students who don’t qualify for a free or reduced lunch. It is just trying to find ways to get the money to help children can be difficult,” she says. “It would be great if more districts qualified for CEP, or Congress approved a budget that included universal free lunch for all schools.”
3. Slow and steady
Excluding its charter school, all elementary and middle school students at Canon City Schools in Canon, Colo., are able to grab free breakfast at school for the first time this year.
Nutrition Service Manager Heather Williams says the district is rolling out the free meals slowly to make sure it can financially support the program, and it hopes to include high schools in the future.
“It’s hard to take something back from families once you offer it, so we felt we needed to make sure we could continue to support our budget from year to year, a little at a time,” Williams says, and Canon City decided to start with breakfast since it had the lowest participation.
“For many children, the only hot meal they receive is the meal provided at school. We want our students to have a healthy meal to start their day,” she says. “Knowing that about half of our families earn just above the eligibility requirements for free and reduced school meals reduces their financial burden and stress. The bottom line: It’s the right thing to do for our students.”