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Kids Eat Free: School Lunch Program Combats Hunger, Stigma

The school cafeteria is a boisterous scene, but anti-hunger advocates say that for low-income kids who don't get enough to eat, the cafeteria can be a stressful place that reinforces stigma. Low-income kids can qualify for free and reduced-price meals through a federal program. But 53 of Vermont's schools have a significant number of low-income students, and the entire student body, regardless of income, can get school meals, without paying out of pocket.

One of those schools is in Johnson, where all elementary students can get free breakfast and lunch in the school cafeteria through the Community Eligibility Provision. VPR's Patti Daniels met up with Johnson Elementary School Principal David Manning at lunch time to learn more.

There are no financial transactions in the Johnson Elementary School cafeteria. The school is small enough in size that the lunch lady is able to track how many students are getting breakfast or lunch. For each meal documented, the school receives reimbursement from the government, with higher rates for students who qualify for free meals.

"It means that regardless of income level, regardless of if a parent has filled out an application or not filled out an application, every kid gets access to our full meals," says Manning. "That's the purpose of the program is to make sure that kids are fed before school when they come for breakfast and fed at lunchtime."

To qualify for the program, 40 percent of the student population must already be receiving services for low-income families.

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Credit Patti Daniels VPR
Johnson Elementary School saw an increase in meal participation, with a rise from 60% of students eating hot meals to over 80% students eating hot meals after the launch of the program.

Johnson Elementary School saw an increase in meal participation, with a rise from 60 percent of students eating hot meals to over 80 percent of students eating hot meals after the launch of the program. Even though some of the students were coming in at a lower redemption rate, the program paid for itself last year.

"The biggest benefit that I notice is that we don't even turn anybody away for food," says Manning. "In the past we used to turn kids away. We would have kids who wouldn't be eligible for free lunch, and their families wouldn't pay. After a certain threshold of giving free lunches, we would have to say no."

Manning says in these situations teachers would pay out of pocket at least once a week to feed the students. The current program, where all students have access to breakfast and lunch, keeps the school out of difficult situations like this one.

"It really makes the whole lunch environment more positive," says Manning. "That tension that used to exist in certain circumstances is gone. And I think that tension could carry through a child's whole school experience; their whole day could be shaded by 'I couldn't afford to eat' or 'I owe the teacher money.'"

The program's removal of cash from the cafeteria also has a less obvious benefit: reducing stigma. When all students get in line to eat the same lunch, none of them know who is eligible for a subsidized meal and who isn't.

The school's success in the cafeteria has carried over into the classroom, both statistically and anecdotally.

Last year, 33 percent of office referrals for behavioral issues happened in the block of classes after lunch. This year, the number of students going to the office after lunchtime decreased to 26 percent.

Morning conflicts would arise with students who weren't eligible to receive free breakfast. "They'd be cranky. Some staff member would pay out of pocket, or have a stash of granola bars in their office. Now we can just go down and get that kid breakfast, so we know he's fed," says Manning.

Although the program initially received community pushback from voices concerned about paying for the meals of students whose families can afford to pay, Manning says there is no longer opposition.

"We're responsible for these kids. We essentially act as parents for seven, eight, some kids it's up to nine hours a day. We're responsible for all aspects of their care, food being a major one of them," says Manning.

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