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Making school meals free for everyone

Students line up for lunch at Bester Elementary School in Hagerstown, Md.

It’s lunch time at Bester Elementary School in Hagerstown, Md. First graders line up for chicken tacos or steamers, also known as sloppy joes.

At this school, most kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals. For a family of four, that means living on less than about $43,500 a year. But this year the school is one of a handful trying a new option: feeding all kids in the school lunch -- and breakfast -- at no charge.

“Down and dirty, it’s good for kids and good for their families,” says Jeffrey Proulx, supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services for Washington County Public Schools.

Even for families who earned too much to qualify for benefits under the old system, he says, $2.00 for lunch every day could be a stretch. The school had about $1,000 a year in unpaid lunch bills.

“Families were clearly struggling, and were struggling to provide lunch money for their children every day,” Proulx says. “Now that struggle is gone.”

Maryland is one of eleven states trying out what’s called “community eligibility.” High-poverty schools no longer have to collect applications for the meals program. They’re reimbursed by the federal government based on the number of kids whose families qualify for Medicaid or food stamps, or are homeless.

A report out this month looked at how the program is working so far in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan, the first three states to adopt the community eligibility option. In schools where the program had been in place for two years, average daily participation in school lunch increased by 13 percent, says Zoe Neuberger, senior policy analyst with the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Participation in the breakfast program increased by 25 percent. Meaning more kids were eating school meals.

“The results were really striking,” she says. “When the meals are free and there’s no longer stigma associated with participating in the meals program, participation does tend to go up.”

This year the city of Boston became one of the largest to offer free meals to all of its public school students, saving families an estimated $450 million a year. The option will be available in all states next year, for schools with high levels of poverty. Neuberger estimates about 15,000 schools ultimately could qualify.

One thing schools haven’t solved: the picky eater. At Bester Elementary, 7-year-old Tyler Williams has barely touched his sloppy joe.

“It tasted like money,” he says.

And what does money taste like? “It’s green.”

Asked if maybe he’d prefer the apple on his tray, he shakes his head. It’s almost time for recess.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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