As expected, the number of students eating both breakfast and lunch at school in Whitehall has increased, thanks to a new federal program launched this school year.
Whitehall City Schools began serving free lunches to all students, regardless of income, as part of a federal program called Provision 2. It comes on the heels of the district's free sit-down breakfast program that was launched last year for all students.
"Compared to last year at this time, we have seen on average an 18-percent increase in the amount of students eating a school breakfast," said Andy Riggle, the district's director of administrative services, "and a 13-percent increase in the amount of students eating a school lunch."
According to federal statistics, Whitehall is right on track.
Provision 2 is an option in the federal School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program for schools to reduce the paperwork and simplify the logistics of operating school meal programs. Any school that participates in the National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program may opt for Provision 2.
The program runs in four-year cycles, with the first year's free and reduced-price lunch percentages serving as the basis for federal reimbursements. After the first year of the program, districts no longer need to submit family applications for the remaining three years of the initiative, reducing administrative costs at the district level and paperwork for families.
Provision 2 schools pay the difference between the cost of serving meals at no charge to all students and the federal reimbursement. The significant administrative savings of Provision 2 helps to offset the cost differential.
Riggle said the transition has been a relatively smooth one.
"Our breakfast and lunch service has operated smoothly," he said. "We had to adjust food quantities slightly to accommodate student choice as we are now offering lunch choices to all students."
Last year, the district offered lunch choices to students in grades 7-12.
"We also learned that students prefer certain lunch items over others since more students are eating lunch," he said. "This also created a need to adjust quantities ordered."
The minor bumps in the road appear to have proven worth the trouble as more and more students continue to eat at school, he said.
"This increase may be the outcome of two factors," Riggle said.
First, more students might be willing to eat breakfast and lunch at school because of less stigma attached to receiving a free meal, he said. Second, more students might be eating at school because it is now free.
"Whichever the case may be, more students are receiving a nutritious breakfast and lunch, and this outcome will be beneficial to them in multiple ways," he said.
According to the federal Food Research and Action Center, students who eat school meals have more nutritious diets than children who don't, regardless of income level.
Riggle said that last year, more than 80 percent of the district's students qualified for either a free or reduced-price lunch.