The School Districts Serving Free Lunch to All Students

The USDA program was established with the central goal of improving academic performance and nutrition among students.

The USDA program was established with the central goal of improving academic performance and nutrition among students. Shutterstock

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Tapping into a federal program, more school districts are providing free lunches for all students. Atlanta is among those opting in this school year.

All public school students in Atlanta will receive free breakfast and lunch this year, regardless of their ability to pay.

The policy, a change from previous years, is due to the district’s enrollment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), an option that reimburses schools for the cost of meals if 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. In Atlanta, where roughly 52,000 students are enrolled in public school, that rate is 49 percent. 

“This is part of our effort to make sure that as many of our kids as possible have nutritious meals throughout the day,” said Seth Coleman, a spokesman for Atlanta Public Schools. “Providing breakfast and lunch for everyone, that was another way we can service our student population.”

The CEP “allows the nation’s highest-poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications,” according to the USDA. Schools are reimbursed for the meals at a level commensurate with the percentage of students who automatically qualify for free meals based on their family’s participation in other federal assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps). That reimbursement rate is valid for a period of four school years.

Thousands of schools nationwide are eligible for enrollment in the federal program, which began under former President Barack Obama. The provision was established with the central goal of improving child nutrition and reducing administrative headaches at the local level, administrators said in a 2015 letter urging eligible schools to enroll in the program.

“The feedback from teachers, administrators, parents, and students has been overwhelmingly positive,” wrote Thomas Vilsack, then-Secretary of Agriculture, and Arne Duncan, then-Secretary of Education. “Participating schools have had few administrative burdens and simultaneously experienced benefits including higher school meals participation.”

Some school districts noted other benefits as well. A 2018 study examining the effects of the program in Georgia schools found that in enrolled schools, the number of students within a healthy weight range increased by 1 percent, leading to a small drop in the average body mass index. And in Tennessee, researchers found that students who had previously received free lunch performed better in school when everyone ate for free, presumably due to the elimination of the stigma that came with being identified as poor.

Other school districts around the country have also opted into the program, including several in Texas, Nevada, North Carolina and West Virginia. In Atlanta, where school resumed on Monday, sample menus have so far included turkey burgers, smokehouse barbecue chicken baked potatoes, crinkle-cut french fries, vegetarian baked beans, corn on the cob and coleslaw.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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