New federal initiative eliminates applications so youngsters don’t go hungry
Students at 169 HISD schools will be able to eat lunch for no charge this year, regardless of their income, thanks to a new federal initiative that became available to all states and eligible schools July 1.
“This new program is a wonderful opportunity for HISD students and families,” said Audene Chung, HISD’s Nutrition Services administrator. “By eliminating the need to qualify students through an application, we hope more children will take advantage of our healthy breakfast and lunch menus.”
HISD has already offered free breakfast to all students since 2010. This push to expand the free lunch program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), is just the latest step to ensure low-income students don’t go hungry.
HISD has been working with the state to ensure as many students as possible benefit. The 169 campuses identified to participate in the program during this school year were selected based on a formula that includes a variety of economic data. To be included, HISD determined schools needed to have 51 percent of their students direct-certified through participation in federal programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. These locations tended to have a free/reduced meal percentage of at least 90 percent for last year.
While not all campuses will be in the program this year, Chung said the school district will continue to look at data to ensure that all eligible campuses may benefit.
“We are looking forward to rolling this out during the new school year,” Chung said. “We think there will be many benefits, including reducing any stigma students might find associated with free meals. Regardless of income, all students at participating schools will be able to eat well.”
Currently, about 170,000 or 81 percent of HISD students qualified for a free or a reduced-price lunch last year. A discounted lunch costs 40 cents, compared with a full price of $2.25.
HISD is able to make the program available under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been piloting the program in states and school districts, including Detroit and Chicago, since 2011. This is the first year that it is being expanded to include all states and schools that meet the requirements.
“Our main goal is to ensure students eat healthy meals so they can stay focused on learning throughout the school day,” said Nan Cramer, HISD dietitian. “Our chefs do an amazing job creating menus that are nutritious and tasty and now more students will benefit.”
Chung said she is committed to implementing the program as smoothly as possible. For the most part, families at participating schools won’t see any big changes, except the benefit of not paying for lunches.
Although the school district will no longer collect the traditional school meal application, it will still ask parents to fill out a CEP form to help collect the socioeconomic data needed to determine other sources of state and federal funding.
Principals will provide these CEP forms as they have in the past with the school lunch applications, usually in packets sent home with students during the first week of school.
HISD officials hope more students at the 169 campuses will eat the cafeteria lunches now that they are free. How much the participation rate may increase is speculation, but Chung estimates the highest numbers may come from the high school campuses, where the stigma of eating school meals has a greater impact on participation.The Food Research and Action Center, an organization that promotes in-school meals, says schools that piloted the community eligibility provision, saw an increase in lunch and breakfast participation. CEP also eliminated the uncollected student meal balances issue.
Chung hopes the program will have similar impacts in HISD. “Students will be able to eat nutritious meals every day at school without having to worry about whether their parents filled out an application or have the money to pay,” she said. “This is one more way for the district to keep our students focused on academic achievement.”
HISD schools included in the free-lunch program for 2014-2015 are:
Farias Early Childhood
Inspired for Excellence West
Kandy Stripe Academy
Laurenzo Early Childhood
Mistral Early Childhood
Neff Early Childhood Center
Port of Houston
TSU Charter Lab
Sugar Grove Academy
High School Ahead Academy