A federal program will pick up the tab for all Galveston Independent School District student breakfasts and lunches in the next school year, a move that could mean fewer hungry children denied meals and less burdensome paperwork for families.
The district this week announced it had been accepted into the U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Eligibility Provision program, which will allow the district to provide free meals to enrolled students no matter their families’ incomes, officials said.
The federal program allows high poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to enrolled students without asking for household applications.
The district, which had not always been eligible for the program, welcomed the news. But it meant the number of students in low-income households had increased to meet the eligibility.
The program also takes into consideration homeless students and foster students, said Jennifer Douglas, director of Child Nutrition for the district. While Douglas didn’t immediately know what changed to increase the number of students from low-income homes, she speculated it might have to do with Hurricane Harvey, which struck in August 2017.
Harvey didn’t badly damage homes on the island, but the storm caused flooding at thousands of mainland homes, displacing students across the county, some who are attending the Galveston school district.
The federal program will reimburse the school district about $3 million for the meals, officials said.
Under previous low-income National School Breakfast and Lunch programs, 73 percent of students in the Galveston district qualified for free and reduced lunch, Douglas said.
The program begins in August and continues through June 2019. Once a district has community eligibility, it’s eligible for up to four years, officials said.
Students will be able to get basic meals for free, but would have to pay for extras, such as chips, ice cream and other snacks, officials said.
The district had a $4.8 million food program budget for 2017, Douglas said.
This isn’t the first time a school district in Galveston County has participated in the Department of Agriculture’s program. Texas City Independent School District also participates in the program. And more than 3,900 schools participate in it nationwide, according to the School Nutrition Association.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates the cost of lunches each year using what it calls a meal equity spreadsheet, including a mandatory 2 percent increase plus the consumer price index increase for the current year.
It costs the district $1.75 to provide breakfast and up to $3 for lunch for each student, Douglas said. The district last year charged students $1.10 for breakfast and $2.50 for lunch, Douglas said.
The school will continue to track student meals as it always has, Douglas said.
“Students will come to the line and make their selections,” she said. “They will still have to enter their student ID number, but there will be no charge to the student. We still have to have an accountability system.”
In the past, a few of the schools in the district were eligible, but this is the first year the entire district could apply, Douglas said.
“A couple of years ago, we could have done it for a couple of schools in the district,” she said. “That’s why now is good because the opportunity is for the entire district.”
The district will maintain its food quality standards under the program, Douglas said.
“We have several guidelines to monitor sodium and low-fat foods,” she said. “We taste test with students to bring in high-quality products for our students. The food quality is not going to change.”
The program will make it easier for students and parents, district spokeswoman Dyann Polzin said.
“Everyone will qualify for free lunch,” she said. “People won’t have to fill out forms, but we will still have to work with families because we need to be able to validate those who do qualify for different federal programs.”
It’s difficult for students to learn when they’re hungry, Trustee Vice President Jeff Temple said. When everyone is eligible for a free lunch, it could erase the stigma attached to it.
“Throughout the nation, we have food shaming, where kids know who is getting free lunches and who is not,” he said. “More than that, this will ensure our kids are fed and not hungry. We will be a pretty good example for the rest of the nation.”