September 7, 2013 4:52:40 PM
BOSTON -- Some students toted lunchboxes to the first day of school in Boston this week, but district administrators are expecting that could become a more unusual sight as parents learn about a federal program that is now providing all public school students in the city with free breakfast and lunch.
The nation's oldest school system has joined a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that has spread to 10 states and the District of Columbia that offers students two free meals every school day, whether or not their families can afford them.
"It's one less weight and one less burden for parents," said Joshua Rivera, whose son is a second-grader at the Maurice J. Tobin School in Boston's Roxbury section.
Known as Community Eligibility Option, the program is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. For schools to qualify, federal officials said, more than 40 percent of students have to be getting food stamps or aid through certain other federal assistance programs.
Besides easing hunger, school officials said, the program eliminates the expense and time of handling paperwork for students who qualify for reduced or free meals and also helps erase a stigma that plagued some students from poor families.
With the program's adoption in Boston, education officials said, the city joins schools in cities including Grand Rapids, Mich., Atlanta and Washington, D.C., in a program that will be available across the country starting in the 2014-2015 school year.
Efrain Toledano, principal of the Tobin School in Boston, said he expects the program will cut down on potential disruptions at the K-8 school by easing hunger pangs that could be linked to classroom misbehavior.
"We know that calm stomachs means calm students who are ready to learn in classrooms," he said Wednesday.
Michael Peck, director of Food and Nutrition Services for Boston Public Schools, said 76 percent of students already had qualified for free or reduced price meals.
He said the program will save the district money, partly because officials won't have to hire couriers to drop off and pick up applications for reduced or free meals at the city's more than 120 schools. They also may be able to cancel the armored car pickups of cafeteria money.
An Atlanta Public Schools spokeswoman said students at 58 of the city's 100 public schools started getting free breakfast and lunch this year under the program. A spokeswoman for District of Columbia Public Schools said 76 out of 111 district schools are part of the program, which started there in the last school year.
In western Michigan, an administrator with Grand Rapids Public Schools said the district has been serving free breakfast and lunch for its 17,000 students since the 2012-2013 school year started.
Paul Baumgartner, the district's nutrition service director, said that breakfast counts skyrocketed after the program began and that it saves families the hassle of filling out applications for free or reduced price meals.
"The rationale is we've got these communities that have demonstrated severe need," he said. "Why don't we see if we can reduce some of these barriers?"