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EBR students to receive free lunch this school year

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POSTED: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 - 6:23pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 30, 2014 - 1:26pm

The East Baton Rouge Parish School System is proving that there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Thanks to an expansion of the National School Lunch Program, none of its students will have to pay for their lunches this year.

"I've been watching this program, because I knew that it would be very good for the students in East Baton Rouge Parish," said Dr. Nadine Mann, Director of Child Nutrition for the school system.

EBRPSS qualified based on the number of students whose families receive SNAP benefits. Dr. Mann estimated that 95 percent of the cost will be paid for by the US Department of Agriculture, while the remainder comes from state funds previously allocated to the system. The new program does not require any additional tax dollars, and parents do not need to apply to enroll their children.

"It eliminates the status of (free) lunch being for poor children," Dr. Mann explained. Last year, 84% of students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch. "It will be for all kids. There's no stigma attached to it, and they should feel better about coming to the cafeteria to eat."

In the past, a meal would cost $2.25 for elementary students and $2.50 for middle and high school students. With 174 days in a school year, that can add up to hundreds of dollars per child.

"It's a pretty big savings," Dr. Mann noted.

The program also offers savings for students who bring their own lunch to school.

"Milk costs a dollar, so if they come through and that's all they want is a milk, they have to pay a dollar," Dr. Mann stated. "But they can choose to have a fruit or vegetable and a roll, and then their milk would be free." A child must choose three items, including a serving of fruits or vegetables, to be considered a reimbursable meal by the USDA.

Parents who do not want their tax dollars to go toward lunches should know that that was the case is the past, Dr. Mann mentioned. She said that the school system had to pull $23,000 out of the general fund to cover unpaid lunch bills last year, and $28,000 the year before.

Giving more students a free lunch should improve their grades. Dr. Mann stated that students who miss a meal have less focus and get sick more often.

"And then at lunch, they certainly have a sinking feeling if they missed lunch," she noted. "And they may have after school activities, also."

And it turns the cafeteria into another classroom.

"Kids have to learn to eat healthier," Dr. Mann said. "It's a learning process. So that's what we feel like we're doing, is making a difference in the lives of children."

EBRPSS has seen a declining number of students participating in the school lunch program over the last couple of years, in part because of the introduction of healthier options.

"We do hope that, over time, that our numbers will come back up," Dr. Mann stated. "And the kids, as they become more accustomed to eating healthier, that we'll see them come back."

She is preparing to pilot a new program called "Breakfast in the Classroom." EBRPSS already offers free breakfast to any student who wants it before the school day starts, but, "every child would have an opportunity, not just those that get there early enough," she added, "it would be, when class starts, they would eat in class, first 10 minutes, and then start their day."

In addition to all of its own schools, EBRPSS provides food service for Community School for Apprenticeship Learning, J.K. Haynes elementary and middle schools, and Madison Prep. Those schools will be included in the expanded free lunch program.

Parents will have a chance to learn about the expanded food service programs and other services at the EBRPSS Back to School Expo on Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at Cortana Mall.

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