CLEARWATER School is back in session, and now students at 58 Pinellas County schools can eat lunch for free no matter what income-level their families are in.
Pinellas County Schools has been chosen for a federal pilot program called the Community Eligibility Option where schools that have at least 40 percent of low-income families qualify for free lunch for the entire student body.
Its designed by the USDA in Washington (D.C.,) said Art Dunham, director of food services for Pinellas County Schools. Its in test mode at the moment and is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and Florida just got permission to be part of the pilot. And the folks in Tallahassee asked different districts if they would like to partake in it, and I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to provide meals to students easily.
Even students at schools other than the 58 chosen for the pilot program can benefit because a new district initiative beginning this year will allow the students at these schools who qualify for reduced-price lunches to receive lunch for free. However, families of these students will still have to submit applications for free/reduced priced lunches, whereas there is no longer any required paperwork at the 58 CEO schools.
(The program) focuses on communities that are hard-hit economically, Dunham said. They evaluate the students in each school, and they cross-check the services that are provided by the state to these families such as food stamps, welfare benefits, insurance benefits, Clothes to Kids benefits, Medicaid benefits. Anything that a social service program would be providing to families, and when those benefits are tallied and the community as a whole has 40 percent of the student body receiving these benefits, the state is deeming that its a community thats eligible for free lunch.
One of the many great things about this program, Dunham said, is that it takes away the perceived stigma that many kids felt by receiving a free or reduced-price lunch. Now, everyone in those schools are on the same level and all they have to do is eat.
That should increase the number of kids fed, Dunham said. Some of the students who in the past qualified for these benefits wouldnt come to us because they didnt want to be identified in any way by their peers that they were needy. This takes that stigma away from that. So if the parent is making $100,000 and can afford lunch and (his or her kids) happen to go to this particular school, the child gets free lunch. Theres no more reduced-price meal and theres no more paid lunch.
In reality, there was no way for kids to tell who ate lunch for free and whose parents paid for it, but there was a perception that it was geared toward the free students, Dunham said, which reduced participation.
The school benefits from the new program, too, Dunham said, because there is no more paperwork to fill out by the parents and for staff to deal with at the beginning of the schoolwork regarding lunch. Furthermore, each school will submit to the federal government the percentages from last year of how many students received free lunch, how many had the reduced-price plan and how many had paid lunch, and the government will reimburse the school for each category.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, this program allows for a healthier student body and a healthier school meal budget.
Last school year, Pinellas County started offering free breakfast to all students, said Melanie Marquez Parra, public information officer for PCS. Now, kids at the 58 schools with the Community Eligibility Option have the opportunity to eat two free meals a day at school.
Its another opportunity to make sure as many students as possible have complete, nutritious meals so they can be successful in school, Marquez Parra said.
Dunham added that the free breakfast program was quite successful in many ways.
We had free breakfast for everyone, and weve seen many, many students enjoying having breakfast together who might never have talked to each other before this, Dunham said.
Last year, Pinellas County Schools fed 69,000 students each day for lunch out of a total student body of 105,000, and this year Dunham hopes to feed an additional 17,000 students daily.
Proper nutrition is crucial for learning, he said.
Its incredibly important, Dunham said. Students cant learn when theyre hungry. There are tests all over the nation that show that a student who is well fed is happier. If he or she is happier, they tend to learn better and FCAT grades go way up.
Having healthier students will benefit the community as a whole, he said, because students will get better grades, will be able to get into better colleges, lead productive lives giving back to the community and also be free of some diet-related diseases. Also, with more kids eating school-provided lunches, they will often be eating healthier food than they otherwise would have.
Were trying to provide the students with more fruits and vegetables and whole grain items with reduced or limited sugars, Dunham said. Fats and sugars contribute immensely to obesity and heart disease and diabetes. And our menus contain no added sugars only natural sugars, and were using whole grain products, so we should be able to reduce some of the obesity thats been a problem in America and have healthier students.
Schools offering free lunch to all students in 2013-14
Azalea Middle Bardmoor Elementary Bay Point Middle Bayside High Bear Creek Elementary Belcher Elementary Belleair Elementary Blanton Elementary Boca Ciega High Calvin Hunsinger Campbell Park Elementary Clearwater Intermediate Cross Bayou Elementary Dixie Hollins High Douglas Jamerson Elementary Dunedin Elementary Eisenhower Elementary Fairmount Park Elementary Frontier Elementary Fuguitt Elementary Gibbs High Gulfport Elementary High Point Elementary John Hopkins Middle Lakewood Elementary Largo Middle Lealman Avenue Elementary Lealman Intermediate Lynch Elementary Maximo Elementary Meadowlawn Middle Melrose Elementary Mildred Helms Elementary Mt. Vernon Elementary New Heights Elementary Nina Harris Exceptional North Shore Elementary Northwest Elementary Pinellas Central Elementary Pinellas Park Elementary Pinellas Park Middle Pinellas Secondary Ponce de Leon Elementary Rawlings Elementary Richard L. Sanders Exceptional Ridgecrest Elementary Sandy Lane Elementary Seventy-Fourth Street Elementary Sexton Elementary Skycrest Elementary Skyview Elementary Southern Oak Elementary Starkey Elementary Tarpon Springs Elementary Tyrone Middle Walsingham Elementary Westgate Elementary Woodlawn Elementary