More of Collier’s school children now qualify for free lunches

— The price of chicken nuggets and a fruit cup just got cheaper for some students in Collier County Schools.

The Collier County School District has rolled out a new project that allows students who qualify for reduced meal benefits, which means they pay 40 cents for lunch instead of the $2 at the elementary school level, to receive school lunch for free. All district students will receive meals at no charge if they qualify for free or reduced meal benefits. If they do not qualify for free or reduced meals, they will pay for a lunch.

“We’re very excited about the program,” said Collier Director of Nutrition Services Dawn Houser. “We hope it makes the quality of life better for Collier students and we are very interested to see how it will impact our test scores.”

The district began piloting the program in August at Eden Park Elementary School in Immokalee. Houser said she had read about studies in other states, including Park City, Utah, where reduced students ate for free.

“The district could still claim to (United States Department of Agriculture) reimbursement for the meal and they got more students to participate in the program,” she said. “What the district’s didn’t realize before starting this was that some families who qualify for reduced lunches didn’t have the 40 cents to give their children.”

The district receives $2.30 per child per lunch from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to feed impoverished students. Houser said she thought the program would work well in Collier County just collecting that supplement, if the district could hold its labor costs steady.

“We thought it would have a positive impact on the children and we thought we could do it,” she said. “But we couldn’t lose money. We’re self-supporting. We have to be able to break even.”

At Eden Park, about 75 percent of the students who qualified for reduced lunches were paying 40 cents for lunch in October 2008. After the implementation of the free lunch program, which was communicated to parents through phone calls at the beginning of the year, that number jumped to 88 percent of the students who qualified for reduced lunches getting free lunches every day.

“We think that number will continue to climb,” Houser said. “But we can see that obviously, this is a valuable service that is needed.”

About 55 percent of Collier County students are on free or reduced lunch, Houser said. There are 3,198 students who are eligible for reduced meals, she said.

Parents can find out if their child qualifies for the program or apply to the program by visiting the Nutrition Services Web site, www.collier.k12.fl.us/FoodService/, and click on the Free and Reduced Meals link on the left side of the page. Applications are also available at all of the schools and at the district’s administrative offices, 5775 Osceola Trail, but Houser said applications through the Web site can be processed faster.

Houser said parents have been notified by the district’s automated messaging service about the program, and said schools have been urged to communicate the changes with parents in newsletters.

“We would like to get as many children signed up for the program as we can,” she said. “We know that kids who eat do better academically and physically. For some of these children, this might be the only meal they get all day.”

The change in policy comes after the district ran a very successful free lunch program at schools over the summer. The School District and the Collier County Parks & Recreation Department served more than 200,000 breakfasts and lunches to hungry children this summer at more than 40 sites.

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