CLEARWATER — Expect lunchrooms to get busier this year as schools across Pinellas County start dishing out healthy lunches that are free for the school district and students.
In addition to the free breakfast offered to students at every Pinellas County public school, all students in 58 elementary, middle and high schools now receive free lunches through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Community Eligibility Option program. Students at three YMCA of the Suncoast after-school programs will even get free dinner from school cafeterias starting Sept. 9.
“We get so many calls where mom will say ‘I just don’t have enough money to feed my kids, I don’t understand why I don’t qualify for free lunch,’ and when you go through her income it may be $5 keeping her from qualifying,” said Art Dunham, Pinellas County Schools’ food services supervisor. “Now I don’t have to tell someone that really does need this benefit that they can’t have it.”
The changes come at no major expense to the school district, as the cost of preparing the extra lunches is reimbursed by the USDA, and there are no anticipated additional costs, such as trash pickup or electric bills, said Food and Nutrition Supervisor Catherine Gerard.
Schools can offer free lunches if 40 percent or more of their students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches without formally applying — those on food stamps, in foster care, who are homeless or receiving government assistance. Students at Community Eligibility schools will not need to submit applications, and even those who wouldn’t normally qualify will get their choice of entrees and as many fruits and vegetables as they want.
The intent behind the new program was to cut down on paperwork schools have to process for a student to receive free lunch. In Pinellas County alone, more than half of the approximately 104,000 students enrolled in Pinellas County schools are eligible fore free or reduced-price meals, said Lynn Geist, the assistant director of the school district’s Food Service Department.
The USDA conducted several studies that found that at schools where 40 percent of the student body qualified for other government services, about 80 percent qualified for free lunch. In most cases, the number of new students that are receiving free lunches this year without properly qualifying is nominal, considering as many as 97 percent of students receive free lunch at some schools, Dunham said. The USDA reimburses the school district for every meal prepared in the cafeterias, so each additional lunch, which Dunham anticipated would only be a couple of hundred at each school, won’t strain on lunchroom staffs.
The number of schools offering free lunch could change for next year, as the Department of Education collects data on eligible students each April, Geist said.
The meals won’t be paid for by taxpayers or the school district but by consumers, Dunham said. Federal money used to pay for school lunches comes from taxes on sales of foreign alcohol.
This is the fifth year the Department of Agriculture has offered free lunches to high-needs schools, and the first year Florida, one of 10 participating states, took advantage.
While Pinellas and Pasco school districts signed up for the program, the Hillsborough school district did not because it does not have as high a percentage of students getting free and reduced-price lunches and Hillsborough school administrators didn’t have enough time to get all their questions answered.
Offering free lunches to every student in certain schools is raising questions among Pinellas school officials. For one, they worry that not signing up students for the free-lunch program could endanger other funding — for Title 1 programs, free ACT and SAT vouchers, free clothes and school supplies — that’s determined by the number of students receiving free meals.
“Now that we’re not having students fill out those forms, we’re still figuring out how we’re going to identify those students, how this is all really going to work,” said School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook. “We don’t want 58 schools not counting toward our Title 1 funding, and we don’t want those kids to miss out on other benefits they’re eligible for.”
Another concern is the need for lunchroom staff. The school district needs 50 more lunchroom employees to operate as efficiently as it did last year, before the program went into effect, Dunham said. However, the Food Services department is “very equipped” to handle the extra workload, he said.
The school district will also use four new food trucks that can hold about 500 hot and 400 cold dinners to deliver to the after-school programs at Belleair, Belcher and Frontier elementary schools starting Sept. 9. School officials hope to expand the dinner service to 30 or 40 additional YMCA and R’Club programs by the beginning of 2014, though that goal may be “a little ambitious for us,” Geist said.
The dinner program will be reimbursed by the state Department of Health’s After School Nutrition Program, and the school district is still looking at some larger schools to become production centers for the meals.
The program could result in 25 to 50 students at each site receiving dinner, Dunham said.
At Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Principal Stephanie Adkinson is already getting questions from students about the new lunch policy and expects lunchrooms to be not only fuller, but friendlier.
“I think it’ll take the pressure off kids, particularly in high school, who may worry about friends finding out that they have free or reduced-lunch status,” Adkinson said. “Now that we’re not dependent on getting them to fill out that form, and everybody gets to eat for free, they’ll take advantage of having a good meal.”