Boston schools join program offering kids 2 free meals a day

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BOSTON -- Some students toted lunchboxes to the first day of school in Boston this week, but district administrators are expecting that could become a more unusual sight, as parents learn about a federal program that is now providing all public school students in the city with free breakfast and lunch.

The nation's oldest school system has joined a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that has spread to 10 states and the District of Columbia that offers students two free meals every school day, whether or not their families can afford them.

"It's one less weight and one less burden for parents," said Joshua Rivera, whose son is a Maurice J. Tobin School second-grader in Boston's Roxbury section.

Officials say serving more kids actually can save them money.

Known as the Community Eligibility Option, the program is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that authorized $4.5 billion in new program funding. For schools to qualify, federal officials said, more than 40 percent of their students must be getting food stamps or aid through certain other federal assistance programs.

Besides easing hunger, school officials said, the program helps erase a stigma that plagued some students from poor families.

Boston joins schools in Michigan, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in a program that will be available across the nation in the 2014-2015 school year.

Efrain Toledano, principal of the Tobin School, said he expects the program to cut down on potential disruptions at the K-8 school, by easing hunger pangs that could be linked to classroom misbehavior. "We know that calm stomachs means calm students who are ready to learn in classrooms," he said Wednesday.

The program eliminates bureaucratic costs and expenses associated with handling cafeteria cash, officials said. Jim Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, noted that the program saves schools money because it's less expensive to feed more students than to do paperwork for children who qualify for free or reduced price meals.

Officials also won't have to hire couriers to drop off and pick up applications at the city's 127 schools, said Michael Peck, the Boston School Department director of food and nutrition services. They also may be able to cancel armored car pickups of cafeteria money.

An Atlanta Public Schools spokeswoman said students at 58 of that city's 100 public schools started getting free breakfast and lunch this year under the program. A District of Columbia Public Schools spokeswoman said 76 of 111 district schools are part of the program, which started there in the last school year.

Detroit Public Schools joined the program during the 2011-12 school year. A spokeswoman said 52,000 breakfasts and 60,000 lunches were served daily to students in the last school year.

In western Michigan, a Grand Rapids Public Schools administrator said the district has been serving free breakfast and lunch for its 17,000 students since the 2012-2013 school year started.

Paul Baumgartner, nutrition service director for Grand Rapids schools, said breakfast counts skyrocketed after the program began, and that it saves families the hassle of filling out applications. "The rationale is we've got these communities that have demonstrated severe need," he said. "Why don't we see if we can reduce some of these barriers?"

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