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All Pittsburgh Public Schools students to get free lunches starting this year

| Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, 10:35 a.m.

All students in Pittsburgh Public Schools will be eligible for free lunches this school year — even if their families can pay.

Schools in the district are among more than 28,000 nationwide where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free lunches through the federal government. A provision of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs taking effect nationwide this year allows districts to forgo taking applications from individual students for assistance.

“Since they know that there won't be a stigma attached to a student receiving a free meal, we expect that meal participation will go up at least by 8 percent,” said Curtistine Walker, director of food service for Pittsburgh Public Schools, who expects some students to continue to bring their own lunches.

Last year, 16.603 students of 26,178 in the district, Pennsylvania's second largest, qualified for free lunches. All students were eligible for free breakfasts.

Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, frowned on the idea of free lunch for students who could pay.

“I'm just a little concerned about this notion that we have to subsidize everything for everybody all the time,” he said.

The initiative is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that authorized $4.5 billion in new funding.

In addition to helping fill students' stomachs, the program may help Pittsburgh schools' budgets. Walker said the district has to pay the food service department's deficit of about $450,000 a year, mostly from students who are supposed to pay for lunch but don't.

“It puts a lot of strain on our department when parents are not made to pay,” she said.

Free lunch for everyone began in 2010 in three states and expands to every state this year. Students in the Clairton City School District qualify beginning this fall.

“My concern is not what parents (earn),” said Alexis Trubiani, the district's lunch coordinator. “My concern is the students are getting a nutritional lunch and breakfast.”

The Duquesne City School District began offering free lunches to all students in 2008 under a different provision.

“It's great. Parents don't have to worry about filling out applications. We don't have to chase them down,” said Nedene Gullen, the district's business manager. “And obviously, the best thing about it is students get to eat for free. They're not standing off on the side and embarrassed that they don't have lunch money.”

The Associated Press contributed. Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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