SCHENECTADY Don’t send lunch money to school this year.
Lunch will be free at all Schenectady schools, to all students, regardless of family income.
Roughly 80 percent of Schenectady’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, but some don’t get it. At the high school, many poor students refuse to bring in the eligibility form because they’re embarrassed about their poverty, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
At the elementary schools, some children come to school with no money and no lunch — but their families make just more than the income maximum for free meals.
Teachers have been quietly giving them food, Spring said.
“We have schools where they all have found their little ways to get them food,” he said. “Staff are doing innovative things.”
At the high school, staffers intercept students who are about to throw away untouched food — usually fruits. That food is set aside in the guidance department for students who complain about being hungry.
Other teachers bring in granola bars and other packaged foods for children who have no lunch.
No longer. Now they can have a full, hot meal with everyone else.
The program is federally funded. The USDA allows school districts to apply for free lunches for all students if at least 40 percent of children qualify for free or reduced lunches. The state operates the program, so Spring had to apply to the state Education Department for permission to offer free meals.
Permission was granted this week.
Students will also get free breakfast every day through a grant from Wal-Mart.
So many children have come to school with no way to eat lunch that Spring expects the district to double its lunches every day under the free program.
That can’t all come from students whose families could afford to pay but instead take advantage of the free meals. Only about 20 percent of the city’s 10,000 students are in that income bracket.
Spring is hoping full meals will lead to better learning.
“When you’re hungry, it becomes pretty hard to think about other things,” he said. “This should help quite a bit. We are really excited about this.
Students can still bring their own lunches from home, and they can decline to eat for any reason, including religious fasting.
The program will also put an end to the lunchtime stigma that children experienced when they stood in line to pay for their meals. Everyone could see which children didn’t have to pay.
“That is one of the most significant things that this will do,” Spring said. “Everybody’s getting a free lunch.”
It will also make the program easier to manage, because the district won’t have to gather applications and audit them for accuracy. But the district will ask all parents to fill out a simple income form so it can still measure poverty among the student population.
“That’s a number we want to monitor,” he said, adding that the district is trying to change policies and programs so poverty is no longer a predictor of difficulty in school.
To measure the success of their changes, Spring said, he needs to know which students live in poverty.
There’s no guarantee the free lunch will last beyond this school year, but Spring hopes to get approval for at least the next few years. The district must apply every year.
“We’re hoping it’s for a long time,” he said.
He also wants to put students on a meal-planning committee. He said that wouldn’t lead to weeks of pizza and chicken wings.
“Kids will surprise you,” he said. “When I’ve done this before … they said enough with the iceberg lettuce. Let’s have some real types of lettuce that have taste.”
Schenectady complies with the federal government’s new nutritional requirements, and Spring said students would be told they had to work within those rules. But even without guidelines, he said students know they should plan healthy meals.
“What was popular was they wanted a deli, a sandwich shop,” he said.
At his last district, students decided to get rid of sugary drinks, too.
“You know what they wanted? Water, bottled water,” he said. “Kids are great, kids are smart, they understand.”
The Rev. Phil Grigsby of Schenectady Inner City Ministry, which runs the free summer lunch program, was enthusiastic about the news.
“That’s a great thing,” he said.
His program can give out meals without tracking income levels because of the high poverty level in the city. He said that freedom is a huge help.
“It makes it a lot easier to run the program,” he said. “Just as a practical matter, everyone is deemed eligible.”