In a sweeping effort to improve access to nutrition among its students, the Providence Public School District is offering free breakfast and lunch to students at all grade levels, with no eligibility requirements.
Providence elementary schools first eliminated eligibility requirements for free breakfast and lunch in 2017, but as of September, this program has been expanded to all middle and high schools across the district.
The new policy resulted from the district’s participation in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, which provides free meals to all students in districts where at least 40 percent of students are eligible for income-based free and reduced-price lunch.
While approximately 85 percent of Providence Public School students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches last school year, only about 72.5 percent actually participated in the free meals program, according to Emily Martineau, PPSD’s director of public affairs. This discrepancy could be attributed to personal preferences or to the stigma attached to identifying oneself as a low-income student, she added.
According to Kenneth Wong, director of the University’s Urban Education Policy Program, the stigma around receiving free lunch often increases as students grow older. “In middle school and high school, you actually see a drop in the number of claims in terms of whether they’re eligible for free meals,” Wong said.
Meg Geoghegan, communications director for the Rhode Island Department of Education, hopes the new program will help fight “lunch shaming” by implementing a system where“ there’s no exchange of money at the student level.”
Wong agreed, adding that by providing free meals to all students, the district can ensure that “there is no stigma attached to eating a good meal.”
Erasing this stigma and thus improving access to proper nutrition removes an important barrier to students’ ability to learn, according to Geoghegan. “We hear pretty consistently from communities that have robust nutrition programs that it makes a real difference when a student is fed,” she said. “If a student’s hungry, it’s going to be really hard for them to retain (information) and be ready to learn.”
The Community Eligibility Provision also reduces administrative challenges and paperwork for the city. While the district used to require parents to complete forms reporting their income each year for the district to determine students’ eligibility for free and reduced-price meals, there will now be no need for this paperwork given the universal enrollment, Wong said.
“By streamlining the process, the district can focus more on food quality and innovative food service options,” Martineau wrote in an email to The Herald.
But the streamlined process means that it will be harder for the city to collect the data on household income levels that schools receive from the free and reduced-price lunch form, Geoghegan said. This information is used for a variety of other purposes, such as providing information on how low-income students performed on assessments, she added.
The new program is reflective of efforts to implement a more holistic approach to education in the city, reaching beyond just academic support to nutritional and social-emotional support. According to Patricia Socarras, deputy director of communications for the Office of Mayor Elorza, schools provide more than half of their weekly meals for many Providence students. “Hunger is a daily problem for many Providence households,” she wrote in an email to The Herald. “For students struggling with food security, school meals are their most consistent source of nutrition.”
Wong stressed that food quality should be a priority for the district, and he said it should take into account the USDA’s guidelines set in their “food pyramid” to ensure students receive adequate nutrition. He also hopes that the district takes the opportunity to work with parents and involve them in creating healthier communities. “If you bring the parents in, then some of the school policy in developing healthy kids would be supported and reinforced out there in the community,” he said.
The expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision is part of the city’s efforts to address larger issues of food security across Providence. “Providing school meals at no out-of-pocket cost supports the City’s work to address youth food access year-round, in and out of school,” Socarras wrote.