If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, imagine what a free breakfast and lunch will do.
Starting with the 2014-15 school year, all students in Pittsburgh Public Schools will receive free breakfasts and lunches regardless of family income, courtesy of the Community Eligibility Provision.
Though the program is new to Pennsylvania, it has been in a pilot stage in 10 states and Washington, D.C., since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010. The act aimed to provide nutritious food to the 32 million students who eat lunch and 12 million students nationwide who eat breakfast at school each day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This is the first year the program will be available nationwide to eligible schools. Prior to the change, only low-income students or students from families receiving federal assistance received free breakfasts in the Pittsburgh district, which includes 25,548 students in 56 schools from pre-k through 12th grade.
Vonda Cooke, state director of the Child Nutrition Program, said the Community Eligibility Provision is simply a “much more streamlined approach to determining eligibility.”
To be eligible, 40 percent of a school’s or a school district’s population must come from families receiving federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They may also be homeless or come from foster homes.
Though a complete list of participating schools across the state won’t be available until after Aug. 31, the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia school districts both meet the 40 percent threshold and will participate in the program. In Pennsylvania, compensation to the districts will come from both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Officials said the new program should alleviate problems that existed when only a portion of students received free meals, including large amounts of paperwork and the burden of having to collect money from students. Last year, $25,000 of debt remained with Pittsburgh schools because some students didn’t pay for their meals.
Curtistine Walker, food service director for the city schools, said the program will also eliminate the stigma of “overidentification” — students won’t be able to tell who qualifies for federal aid programs like SNAP and TANF.
Neither Ms. Cooke nor Ms. Walker could estimate what the program will cost in Pennsylvania because a total list of the schools participating is not yet available.
“It’s a unique opportunity for schools to cut down on the stigma of which students get meals and which students don’t. It’s seamless, and there’s no distinction,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer service.
“The staff who have to spend some of their day doing counts on who pays and who doesn’t pay [can] be more focused on how we’re providing this meal and which steps to make sure they’re consuming it.”
Mr. Concannon said that when schools provide breakfast, fewer students go to the school nurse with complaints of headaches and stomachaches. He also said attendance picks up.
According to Ms. Walker, the Community Eligibility Provision offers equal opportunity to all students to receive breakfast and lunch, and she anticipates an increase in participation in both.
“I feel that providing free meals across the board gives every child the opportunity to receive nourishment and well-balanced meals that contribute to overall learning,” Ms. Walker said. “Just because a child doesn’t qualify [for federal aid] doesn’t mean there’s not a hunger issue there.”
Breakfast at the Pittsburgh Public Schools will consist of a whole grain bread option, milk and fruit, of which students are required to take at least half a cup.
For lunch, students are offered a serving of protein, fruits and vegetables and milk. There are special meal items for students with allergies and various needs. As time goes on, Ms. Walker anticipates a wider variety in the menu and an opportunity to provide diverse options.
The primary focus of the program, Ms. Cooke said, is the kids.
“We want them to succeed. And in order for a child to succeed educationally, they need their needs met. Ensuring all students have access to healthy meals is important to the USDA and the Department of Education here in Pennsylvania. The program provides greater opportunity to access those meals, and it makes it more streamlined for the families and the schools and to the additional administration in the school,” she said.
Kate Mishkin: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1352. On Twitter: katemishkin. First Published August 20, 2014 11:37 AM