The Berks-Mont News (http://www.berksmontnews.com)

Pottstown schools poised to offer free meals to all students


By Evan Brandt, ebrandt@21st-centurymedia.com

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Don’t believe what they tell you; as it turns out there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Or at least there may be if the school board votes Monday to authorize Pottstown’s food services manager to apply to expand the federal free and reduced lunch program in the district.

At the March 13 finance committee meeting, Food Services Director Leroy Merkel explained that the national trial period a 2010 federal expansion of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is now over and Pennsylvania must expand its “community eligibility program” in the coming school year.

What that means for Pottstown — where as many as 2,270 of the district 3,110 students qualify for the federally funded free-and-reduced-lunch program — is the ability for nearly all breakfasts and lunches served in the district’s cafeterias to be provided free of charge.

Merkel said low-income students in Pottstown are “certified” by being part of at least one other program such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as “food stamps,” or the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

The new state initiative allows a district to apply a 1.6 multiplier to its percentage of qualified students, “and that brings us to 95 to 97 percent” who are eligible for free meals, Merkel said.

“The state wants us to do this,” Merkel said.

“I’m kind of excited about this,” said board member Amy Francis. “The whole lunch monty thing is a hassle.”

Elementary lunches cost $2.10 for those no receiving the meals for free and secondary school lunches cost students $2.35.

Merkel said it actually costs the district closer to $2.95 to produce a school lunch and that is what the federal reimbursement rate is set at as well — a rate which is guaranteed not to go down for at least four years, although it can go up.

If the school board authorizes the move, Merkel said he will notify the state and, with a little bit of paperwork, lunches and breakfasts in all school buildings would be free when the school year starts in September.

He said that in other states where this program has already been piloted, school districts saw an average 13 percent increase in students eating school lunches and a 25 percent increase in those eating school breakfasts.

“We don’t have a tremendous number of students participating in the breakfast program,” said Business Manager Linda Adams, who noted that the district does not anticipate needing to add any staff as a result of the change.

“It’s exciting, something to look forward to,” Adams said.

The 2010 re-authorization of the program also significantly tightened the nutritional requirements for the school lunches, Merkel said.

“For example, the K-8 lunch menu has to be between 600 and 650 calories and it has minimums and maximums for grains and proteins as well,” Merkel said.

“It’s all aimed at combating childhood obesity,” said Merkel.

“This is good,” said Adams, “the more children who are fed, the better.”