Atlanta Public Schools has expanded the number of schools that offer free breakfast and lunch to every student, no matter their family income.
Starting this year, every student who attends a district-run school or a charter school that uses the district's food service is eligible for no-cost school meals.
There are now 77 Atlanta schools dishing out free meals to all students, up from 60 last year.
That means most Atlanta students can eat for free.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides federal reimbursements for the meals under a program Congress authorized in 2010. Supporters have touted the aid as a way to cut paperwork, lessen the stigma poor students could feel for receiving a free meal and make sure no child goes hungry.
To qualify for the federal program, school districts must show that at least 40% of students receive food stamp benefits, homeless services, or are enrolled in pre-kindergarten Head Start programs. The district reported that 49 percent of Atlanta students met those requirements.
Students need to have their basic needs met in order to learn, said Marilyn Hughes, executive director of the district's nutrition department.
“If they’ve eaten, they will have the complete attention that they need,” she said.
Last school year, the Atlanta district received about $23.2 million in reimbursements for its meal program, and officials expect to receive enough in reimbursements this year to cover the cost of the growing program.
A full-price lunch for elementary students costs $2.25 last year and $2.50 for middle and high schoolers.
APS families at the participating schools no longer need to fill out applications to qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The district is also working out a way for parents to donate the money they would have spent on their child’s meals to support other APS programs that help needy students.
Two APS charter schools — Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School and Atlanta Classical Academy — don’t use the district's meal service and aren’t serving no-cost meals to all students, according to the district. KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools also doesn’t use the APS food-service provider, but all eight KIPP charter schools authorized by the Atlanta school system participate in the federal program and offer free meals to students.
In 2013, Clayton County Public Schools became the first metro Atlanta district to offer no-cost meals to all students. Since then, more students are eating school meals. About 37% of Clayton students ate school breakfast before the program, compared to 47% now. School lunch participation increased from 82.3% to 85%.
In addition to saving families money, the program has cut expenses for the district because it no longer has to print and process applications for free and reduced-price meals.
It’s still early in the school year, but the APS expansion also appears to be prompting more student participation.
Drew Charter School is among the Atlanta schools that started offering no-cost meals to all students this year. The junior and senior high school campus had previously participated in the program from 2015 to 2017.
In the first few days of this school year, the number of Drew elementary students eating school lunch nearly doubled. The junior and senior academy campus has served about 150 more lunches than the 300 it served typically.
Drew officials think the uptick is because of the no-cost program and because the district has a new food-service provider.
Early student feedback about the quality of the meals has been positive, according to the district. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen told board members this month that cheese pizza is already among the most popular entrees.
A table full of boys dining in Drew's cafeteria on a recent school day confirmed that. One called the pizza "restaurant quality;" another amateur reviewer described it as "melt-in-your-mouth."
Across the lunchroom, Drew eighth-grader Sage Harrison also had a slice of pizza on her tray, along with french fries, pineapple and a carton of milk. While she usually brings her lunch, she said school meals are tastier this year.
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