Free lunch for Highlands, New Ken schools eliminates stigma
Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch will have to eat those words in two Alle-Kiski Valley school districts.
This year, no student in the Highlands and New Kensington-Arnold school districts will pay for lunch or breakfast at school. And they won't have to pay during the three school years that follow, either.
The districts qualify to provide free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed by Congress in 2010.
Under the law, districts with at least 40 percent of students eligible for public assistance programs will be able to provide free lunches for all students — regardless of family income.
The program does not rely on the percentage of students already receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Instead, it uses a formula that factors in the number of student families eligible for public assistance such as food stamps or welfare.
Of the 15 school districts in the Alle-Kiski Valley, only New Kensington-Arnold and Highlands qualify for the districtwide program. New Kensington-Arnold had 60 percent and Highlands had 52 percent of students who would be eligible.
Avoiding a stigma
“It really creates a great environment for students,” said Vonda Cooke, chief of the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Food and Nutrition Division. “What happens is that the students who are eligible for free meals, they don't want to be in the program because they don't want to be stigmatized.
“The students who really, really need the food: that's where the participation really increases because they don't feel the stigma.”
But some think the program over-reaches, including Elizabeth Stelle, a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based think tank.
“When it comes to the social safety net, our top priority should always be our neediest families,” she said.
“Efforts to expand free lunches without regard to income could result in a transfer of support from the working poor to the middle class,” Stelle said. “That's concerning.”
Sharon Conway, Highlands' director of food services, said a lot of families' incomes are just above the limit to qualify for free lunches.
“So, this is going to help out a lot of families in the Highlands School District.”
According to Cooke and officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the national school lunch program, another advantage of the new program is that it eliminates applications.
In the free and reduced lunch program, families are required to submit applications to the school district to determine whether their children qualify. Districts that are ineligible or choose not to participate in the new program will still use the application process.
The Community Eligibility Provision simply uses information provided by the state Welfare Department to school districts on those students who qualified through other income-tested public assistance programs.
“From the district's standpoint, it certainly cuts down on the paperwork,” said Jeff Ammerman, director of technical assistance for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
John Pallone, New Kensington-Arnold's superintendent, said not only students were resistant to the free and reduced program, but some parents, for whatever reason, would not fill out the lunch applications.
But Pallone said the district still served meals to those children.
“How do I punish a first-grader or second-grader and say, ‘We're not giving you lunch because your parent won't fill out the paperwork'? ” he said.
He said the advantage of this program is that all those children will be fed, and the district will be reimbursed for those meals.
‘A great concept'
After being rolled out in about 10 states over the past few years, the program is now open to all states.
So far, Lori McCoy likes it. McCoy is president of the Pennsylvania School Nutrition Association, a professional group of the state's school food service directors and managers.
“I think it is a great concept,” she said. “I just think you have to analyze whether it is right for your school district.”
McCoy said districts still have to pay for their cafeteria programs up front and then receive reimbursement from the USDA.
“You only get reimbursed for free students based on a certain formula, and some school districts may find that it's not cost effective for them,” she said.
Individual school buildings within a district that meet the 40 percent benchmark may qualify for free lunches for all students attending that school.
Cooke said about 800 public schools across the state — a third of them — opted into the program but didn't know the number of entire districts doing it.
Reduced no more
The districtwide free meals eliminate reduced-price lunches and reimbursement for them. All lunches in Highlands and New Kensington-Arnold will be reimbursed at either the free rate or the lower paid-lunch rate.
“It doesn't have any financial impact on us negatively at all,” Pallone said. “We're not getting rich on it, either.”
New Kensington-Arnold uses a food services contractor, Nutrition Inc.; Highlands runs its own program.
Conway and Highlands' business manager, Jon Rupert, think it will be financially advantageous.
“We're going to end up making money on it,” Rupert said.
“I'm hoping for at least $10,000 per month just for lunches,” Conway said.
The districts buy food at the lowest possible prices through Pittsburgh Regional Food Service Directors, which runs a co-op.
Cooke, the state Education Department's school lunch chief, said this year the federal government reimbursements are up to $3 for free lunches and 28 cents for paid lunches. She said the state kicks in up to 14 cents additional depending on participation.
Tyffanie King, the mother of three New Kensington-Arnold students, said her children have qualified for free lunches in the past and thinks it's appropriate for all kids to receive them.
“For the people on the reduced program, I'm sure that is tough to come up with every day, especially if you have more than one kid,” King said. “I'm sure it's tough for people living paycheck to paycheck. You might not have that extra dollar a day.”
Pallone said the biggest benefit comes through better education.
“When I think about what our mission is, it is to provide an equal education to everyone,” Pallone said. “And a well-balanced breakfast and lunch certainly makes learning easier. Study after study shows that students don't perform if they don't get the proper nutrition.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.