Most Hamilton schools to offer free lunch for all

FREE LUNCHESHere are the schools qualifying for free breakfast and lunch for all students:Allen Elementary, Alpine Crest Elementary, Barger Academy, Battle Academy, Bess T. Shepherd Elementary, Brainerd High, Brown Academy, Brown Middle.Calvin Donaldson, Clifton Hills Elementary, Dalewood Middle, Daisy Elementary, Dupont Elementary.East Brainerd Elementary, East Lake Academy, East Lake Elementary, East Ridge Elementary, East Ridge High, East Ridge Middle, East Side Elementary.Falling Water Elementary, Hardy Elementary, Harrison Elementary, Hillcrest Elementary, North Hamilton Elementary, Hixson Elementary, Hixson High, Hixson Middle, The Howard School.Lakeside Academy, Lookout Valley Elementary, Lookout Valley Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle.Red Bank Elementary, Red Bank High, Red Bank Middle, Rivermont Elementary.Sequoyah High School, Soddy Daisy Middle, Soddy Elementary, Snow Hill Elementary, Spring Creek Elementary.Tyner Acadmey, Tyner Middle Academy, Woodmore Elementary, Wolftever Creek Elementary.

photo East Side Elementary students enjoy lunch in this file photograph from March.

Put away the lunch money.

Come August, students at two-thirds of Hamilton County's schools will be offered free breakfast and lunch daily. The school system qualified for a federal lunch program that gives taxpayer-subsidized meals to all students in 47 schools -- regardless of family income.

School officials see many benefits of the program: Parents can save money, upwards of $700 per year for a student who eats breakfast and lunch daily. Students should have more time to eat instead of fumbling with payment at the cash register. And the move will cut down on the need for documentation to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs -- though families will still need to fill out some type of form.

Carolyn Childs, the county's director of school nutrition, said the program has reduced trips to the school nurse and increased attendance rates in other school systems that have it.

"It is an opportunity to feed our students at no cost to them, regardless of income," she said.

"It's going to enable them to fuel up and learn."

The federal Community Eligibility Program is one piece of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a piece of legislation that has grown notorious for its stricter regulations of school meals. Schools are still implementing regulations of their breakfast and lunch menus, but so far the new rules have required more fruits and vegetables, while also cutting the amount of sugar, salt, fat and calories of meals.

In May, Cleveland City Schools agreed to pilot the Community Eligibility Program, which will offer free breakfast and lunch to all its 5,200 students next year.

Hamilton County's school board voted last month 6-3 to pilot the federal program for a year. But not without argument. Several board members were skeptical of the federal government's role and didn't like the idea of taxpayers picking up the tab for thousands of students. And some wondered what would happen if the feds were to quit funding it.

"There's no such thing as a free lunch," said board member Rhonda Thurman. "The government doesn't have any money. It's our money."

But other board members saw it as a chance to help out both students and parents.

"I want all kids to eat," said board member George Ricks. "I think it's a good program."

Currently, families must fill out paperwork verifying low income levels to qualify for the federal free and reduced price lunch program. But now families will no longer have those hurdles. Childs said families will still need to fill out a household survey, because a school's participation rate in free and reduced-price lunch programs plays into its ability to compete for federal grants and state funding.

But in the lunch room of the 47 schools that qualified, no one will know who is paying and who isn't -- because everyone eats for free.

"Gone is the stigma of who is free and who is not," Childs said.

To determine which schools qualify for free lunch for all, the federal government uses a formula that takes into account the rates of foster children, homeless children, runaways, migrants and students on food stamps.

Under the new program, some 24,000 students will instantly qualify for free meals. Already, about 25,000 students eat a school lunch each day, so Childs said she hopes the program will increase overall breakfast and lunch participation.

"It's really a leap of faith," she said. "For any district that does this, it's a real leap of faith."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.

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