When students returned to Second Street School on Wednesday, they had the chance to eat breakfast and lunch for free – regardless of their parents’ income.
The “community eligibility option” is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010.
To qualify, at least 40 percent of students must be on public assistance; at SSS, the rate is more than 53 percent. The school board in May voted unanimously to join the program.
The concept is to consider the poverty level of the entire community – not just individual kids, said April Peach, Food Services director for Frankfort Independent Schools.
It’s too early to gauge how the program is working, but Peach said parents and kids have been receptive.
Participation is up compared to last year, she said, especially at breakfast. The school must already adjust its breakfast schedule to accommodate the long lines, Peach said.
“Everyone is eager to get in there and get a meal,” she said Friday.
Kentucky is among the first states to participate in the universal free meal option that allows schools in high-poverty areas to eliminate the use of applications for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.
Tennessee and Illinois also participate. The option will be phased in nationwide over the next few years.
FIS considered taking part in the program last year, but opted out because of the cost. At the time, Peach estimated the school district would lose $2,500 a month if SSS joined.
Superintendent Rich Crowe told The State Journal in May that the earlier figure didn’t include all the factors. The program was new then, he said, and school district leaders now have “a much better handle on it.”
Peach has since estimated that foregoing paid lunches could mean the school district loses about $5,000 annually. SSS can leave the program after one year if it proves too costly.
The loss could be offset by increased sales of a la carte food and expanded menu options for teachers and staff, she said. The cafeteria now includes a soup and salad bar for teachers, staff and other adults who visit the school.
“We opened the deli area for adults to try to supplement what we felt we might lose by offering all meals for free,” she said. “That’s gone over really great too.”
The cafeteria will offer new student menus this year too, redesigned to comply with stricter federal requirements.
The changes aim to make school lunches healthier by lowering fat and sodium, shifting to whole grain breads and introducing more fresh fruits and vegetables.
Peach said she stays in touch with local growers for produce and plans to use crops from the school garden.
Schools must implement the changes gradually over the next few years. New breakfast guidelines don’t take effect until next year.
“Mostly, when I redid the menus, I tried to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables instead of cooked items,” Peach said.
“There are very few cooked vegetables – it’s mostly just fresh, so they’ve got the most bang for their buck as far as nutrients.”
Frankfort Middle-High School doesn’t qualify for universal free lunches, but the school board could have included FHS in the program because students from the elementary school eventually enroll there.
They opted not to after Peach estimated the school district would lose about $51,000 a year in the venture.
The State Journal asked its Facebook followers Thursday for their opinions on the new free lunches.
Responses were mostly positive, from parents who looked forward to saving the money. Some said they struggled to pay for lunches in the past.
Others opposed using taxpayer money to buy breakfast and lunches for families who could afford it.
Katie Sewell Hood, mother of a kindergartener at SSS, said she’s “absolutely in support” of the program. She remembers being in school herself and the stigma that followed kids who received free lunch.
“There were so many kids in school on free lunches, and most people knew because they didn’t pay cash for it,” she said.
“People are seeing it as a handout, and maybe it is, but some people need it. A lot of times, these are the only two meals a child is getting.”
Her 5-year-old daughter plans to eat breakfast at school, but will mostly bring a sack lunch – her mom says she’s a bit of a picky eater.
Hood said she’s talked to parents from the Early Learning Village, where her daughter attended preschool, who say they wish the free lunch program were available there too.
“It seems like something that all of the schools, city and county, should be able to do,” she said.
“There are a lot of single-family incomes, parents who work several jobs, and you hear that they make too much money (to qualify for free lunch), but they still can’t afford it.”
Cindy Aossey, SSS volunteer and mother of two boys ages 9 and 11, estimates the program would save her family more than $100 a month.
“We’re very happy about it,” she said. “There’s the financial savings, and it’s also more convenient – we don’t have to worry about the logistics of sending money with them to school.”
Aossey said her kids eat school lunch almost every day. She said she’s satisfied with the quality of the food they receive.
“I think they do a pretty good job,” she said. “Lunch is better – I think their lunches are pretty good.”
Other parents say the overall quality and healthiness of school meals needs improvement before they would consider sending them through the lunch line.
Kim Wallis plans to forego the free meals and continue sending her daughter to school with a homemade sack lunch.
As the wife of a chef and the daughter of an Iowa farmer, Wallis said healthy meals made with local and organic ingredients are important to her and her husband.
“If you don’t have access to good nutrition, your brain can’t develop as it should and that impacts your learning,” she said.
“You are what you eat, so we just try to be as healthy and well-rounded as we can.”
Wallis said she knows what goes into conventional farming, and that schools don’t always get the best of the crop. She’s encouraged by recent federal changes to school lunch requirements, but for now, she still plans to send her 3-year-old off to school with a lunch bag.
“Really the bottom line is we don’t need to get a free lunch. I know the school is going to be losing money, and I don’t want to see that come down on the taxpayers,” she said.
“I know a lot of people want to take advantage of everything that’s free, but if they can pay they should. It’s the basics – you feed your children if you can, and those who need it can get it for free.”