All East Baton Rouge Parish school system students to receive free lunch

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system will be providing free lunch to its almost 42,000 students, including thousands who in the past had to pay for their meals.

The change, announced Monday, takes effect Aug. 11, the start of the 2014-15 school year.

The school district plans to take advantage of a new federal initiative that allows public schools in high-poverty areas such as Baton Rouge to provide free meals to all students without families having to fill out individual forms.

The free meal provision was created as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and it goes nationwide during the 2014-15 school year. It is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s the biggest thing we’ve seen since free breakfast was introduced in the ’60s,” said Nadine Mann, director of the child nutrition program for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

According to the official enrollment count taken Oct. 1, almost 82 percent of children in East Baton Rouge Parish schools — about 34,600 children — received a free lunch or reduced-price lunch costing 40 cents per meal. Another 7,700 children paid for lunch or brought their own.

Making lunch free for all students will save families between $122 and $744 a year just for lunch, Mann said.

Lunch is currently $2.25 per meal in Baton Rouge elementary schools, and $2.50 a meal for middle and high schools.

Thousands more, between 5 and 10 percent of all students in Baton Rouge depending on the year, pay the reduced price of 40 cents per meal. These families have incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that ranges from $30,005 to $44,123 in annual income.

Mann said the change will free her staff from a lot of administrative hassle, as well as having to become bill collectors to get families to pay. She also likes that all children will be treated equally.

“What this means now is there will be no stigma attached to a meal,” Mann said.

A school or a school system qualifies for community eligibility if at least 40 percent of its students participate in the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or in other federal income-based programs. Children participating in Head Start, living in foster care, or who are homeless or migrant can also count toward that 40 percent threshold.

Mann said 59 percent of the students in the parish school system fit that description, which works out to about 95 percent eligibility for free lunch under USDA’s formula. The roughly half-million-dollar cost of covering the remaining 5 percent is small enough that the school system can pay for the expense through other funding, she said.

Some school districts across the country have held off pursuing community eligibility because of concerns about losing funds from the federal anti-poverty Title I program, which relies on income surveys parents traditionally fill out to qualify for subsidized meals, and other programs that rely on such information.

To overcome that problem, East Baton Rouge is shifting the questions on its meal survey, called “Application for Meal Benefits,” to a new form known as the “Title 1 Data Form.” Mann said only students who don’t receive food stamps, or are otherwise not identified, will have to fill out these new data forms.

Many school districts are still weighing whether to participate. USDA has extended the application deadline to participate from June 30 to Aug. 31. USDA has identified which schools are likely eligible and which ones are not, including ones in Louisiana.