HAMLET — All Richmond County public school students in kindergarten through eighth grade and all Leak Street High School students will receive free breakfast and lunch beginning this year under a federal program for low-income communities.
The meals come courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, a program geared at encouraging students to eat healthful meals at school while eliminating paperwork for parents. Child Nutrition Director Lois Hood said the benefits to students who participate in new program will also apply to the parents.
“Students will be able to eat nutritious, healthy meals with no stigma,” Hood said. “We have new nutrition guidelines we have to follow concerning availability of fruit and vegetables of different types. Before, a serving of fruit was one-half cup. Now, it’s a whole cup. And before, we offered fruit juice during breakfast, but not fruit. Now we offer both, and students can choose fruit as part of their breakfast.”
Hood said that the meals will be lower in sugar, salt and fat and higher in essential nutrients needed for students’ growth and academic success. Recent studies, according to a Richmond County Schools news release, reveal that when students are hungry, they are often distracted in the classroom, are absent from school more often and score lower on standardized tests.
Getting the whole community on board is the goal, officials said. What was once available only to families who demonstrated economic hardship and filled out lengthy and confusing applications is now available to all K-8 students and all students attending Leak Street High School. Hood said that there is no family that won’t benefit from the new program.
“I’m hoping that just by knowing they don’t have to get up and cook early in the morning or pack a lunch, everyone will choose to be part of this,” Hood said. “That’s a cost those parents won’t have to deal with anymore. The federal government is sponsoring it, and it came down from the top. As a school district, you have to take the whole thing as it is or not get it at all. I hope everyone will benefit from the convenience and the nutritional improvements.”
Traditionally, breakfast for students before school has sometimes been the cause of children arriving after the official beginning of class time — particularly on days when buses run late and students who need breakfast have to stop by the cafeteria.
“We try not to take students away from instructional time,” Hood said. “We now have bagged-to-go breakfasts they can take to the classroom if needed. And they are good, healthy meals.”
Richmond County Schools Superintendent Dr. Cindy Goodman said the combination of better choices and nutrition in school lunches with greater accessibility are a win-win situation for the district.
“We are doing this because it actually saves the school district money,” Goodman said. “This literally saves us money. It affects our reimbursement rate from the federal government when participation is high. I’d like for it to be universal. Richmond Senior High School is not included in this because students get there and just don’t sign up for free and reduced lunch. Since they haven’t had the same rate of applications, they weren’t automatically qualified for this program. We are expanding food options at the high school this year though. We hope to have a food court at Richmond Senior. Pizza Hut will be there. We want to make the food choices more enticing for students.”
The nutrition program may have changed, but some things remain the same.
“The most popular menu choice of the students is pizza,” Hood said. “Pizza and chicken nuggets. But the pizza is a much healthier version than before. It’s made with a whole-wheat crust. We even have a stuffed-crust pizza. All of this is formulated specifically for children using low-fat cheese and nutritious ingredients. They (the kids) don’t even notice the difference.”
Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @MelonieFlomer.