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Change to federal program means free meals for all students in Shelby County Schools

Kids eating lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary, in Orange Mound.
Kids eating lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary, a charter school in the Orange Mound of Memphis.
J. Zubrzycki

All of Shelby County’s students will be able to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner for free next school year due to a change in the federal school lunch program, Shelby County School administrators told board members Tuesday.

Before, each individual student’s family had to apply and confirm that it earned below a certain income in order to be “eligible” to receive a free or reduced-price lunch subsidized by the federal government. Students received free breakfasts through the district.

But this coming fall, the federal Department of Agriculture plans to roll out out a new “community eligibility” category for schools and districts with high percentages of students living in poverty. If more than 40 percent of students in a given district, group of schools, or school are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, that entity is eligible to receive subsidies for lunches eaten by any student in the school. Individuals will no longer need to apply for the program. Shelby County Schools fits that criteria and plans to provide up to three free meals a day to students.

The change to the federal school lunch program was part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Schools Act, which was passed in 2010. The program has been rolled out in ten states and the District of Columbia since 2010. All states, including Tennessee, are eligible next school year.

The primary goal is to reduce hunger among the district’s students. But the change should also reduce wait times in school lunch lines and reduce administrative costs at the district level: Some 20 central office personnel were responsible for sorting out free and reduced-price lunch-related paperwork, according to Anthony Geraci, the head of the nutrition department, and Frank Cook, the director of nutrition finance.

Geraci said the new program should also help reduce the stigma felt by some students who received the free or reduced-price lunches, and should allow for more efficient check-out procedures at the school level.

Counterintuitively, Geraci said, the district made more money from “free” lunches than from lunches students paid for, due to federal subsidies. He said the district should see at least $4.3 million in revenues, and that local families should save close to $2 million.

The change may complicate how the district distributes some funds and how it calculates and reports other pieces of data. The percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has often been used to measure the needs of a school’s student body.

Geraci said that while the district’s overall funding won’t change, allocations to individual schools will, as well as “how we report academic performance based on economic disadvantage.” He said the change to the lunch program will also affect how the district calculates its e-rate – which helps schools get lower prices on telecommunications fees – and other fee waivers. (This Education Week article lays out the change in policy, and this one describes the way that policy will affect things like the e-rate.)

Geraci said students will see new menus next year as well. And, starting next year, much of the district’s food will have been grown by Shelby County students, he said.

Schools in the state-run Achievement School District and charter schools that contract with the district will also undergo the changes in lunch policy, district officials said.

The board will decide whether the district will participate in the program at its next meeting.

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