Let them eat lunch: all Philly students now eligible for free school meals

 In this April 29, 2014 file photo, two elementary school boys, ages 5 and 6, eat lunch (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

In this April 29, 2014 file photo, two elementary school boys, ages 5 and 6, eat lunch (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

For students in the Philadelphia school district, there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Starting this fall the School District of Philadelphia will serve free breakfasts and lunches to all students, waiving the need for parents to submit a paper application proving their income is low enough to qualify.

The district’s division of food services has transitioned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision — which allows districts which serve predominantly low-income students to discard the paper application.

According to an official release, the district anticipates that benefits will include “better access to school meals by easing the strain on household budgets, reducing the paperwork burden on families and eliminating the stigma associated with the free lunch program.”

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Although more students will be able to dine on the distict’s dime, officials say the move will actually won’t cost the cash-strapped school system money.

Free meal programs are covered by the federal government, as well as the Pennsylvania department of education.

Also, axing the paper application will free administrative staffers to focus on other duties.

“Our goal is to provide as many students as possible with access to healthy, nutritious meals,” said Superintendent William Hite in the release. “We want to keep students’ focus on learning, not hunger.”

In a telephone interview, the district’s vice president of food services Wayne Grasela praised the move from a logistical standpoint.

“It streamlines our operations. We won’t have to field calls from parents, ‘why isn’t my child eligible,’ those kinds of things,” he said. “It will reduce some of the administrative burden here and also at the school level.”

Grasela expects higher participation in free meals will cause the district to have to “realign our staffing in the schools a little bit.”

From the release:

The District has offered breakfast at no cost to all schools for the past four years. Since 1991, approximately 175 schools have participated in a universal lunch program where all students were able to receive free lunch without completing paperwork.

Under the new program, an estimated 85 schools will join their ranks.

Approximately 80 percent of Philadelphia public and charter school students meet income guidelines for school meals. More than 143,000 students in Philadelphia are served annually.

During the 2013-14 school year, more than 27 million meals were served, including dinner as part of afterschool programs at approximately 100 school meal sites.

The USDA Food and Nutrition Service administers the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program among other initiatives to address hunger and obesity. Both programs are available in public or nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. Meals must meet federal nutrition guidelines.

Nationwide, more than 13 million children are served school breakfast and more than 32 million receive school lunch annually. Research has shown links between school meals and improved attendance, nutrition and academic performance.

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