Every student in Whitehall will receive lunch for free next year, thanks to a federal program that is available only to qualifying districts.

Every student in Whitehall will receive lunch for free next year, thanks to a federal program that is available only to qualifying districts.

Whitehall Board of Education members approved the recommendation earlier this month.

The free-lunch initiative comes on the heels of the district's free breakfast program launched just last year.

"I think it was a big hit," said Andy Riggle, the district's director of administrative services who pitched the lunch program to school board members last week. "Our attendance at breakfast gradually increased."

Provision 2 is an option in the federal School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program for districts to 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 -- along with paperwork for families.

Riggle stressed that if parents do not fill out free and reduced-price lunch applications in the first year of the program, Whitehall will not qualify for adequate reimbursement and might not be able to continue the program in the second, third and fourth years.

Free and reduced-price lunch applications will be distributed to all students at the beginning of the year and should be filled out by those families who qualify.

Riggle said more than 80 percent of the district's student body qualifies for either a free or reduced-price lunch, but all students will receive the free lunch under the new program.

Federal reimbursements, paired with a streamlined meal service, simplified paperwork and reduced administrative costs, make the initiative affordable to districts.

Riggle said it's also important that a district run an efficient food-service program, meaning it provides quality food that is cost-effective for the district.

Under the program, 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 is supposed to help offset the cost differential.

Riggle said that by offering free lunch to everyone, it erases the embarrassment felt by some students on a traditional free-lunch program. It also eliminates the need to key in PINs while in the lunch line, thus speeding up the serving process.

"But our reimbursement for serving these meals will be driven by the number of people who still qualify, based on those income guidelines," said Steve McAfee, the district's treasurer. "So it's very important (that families) fill out that form for us this year; then they will not have to for the next three years."