Norwich schools to provide free lunch, breakfast to all students

Norwich — All of the more than 3,500 students in Norwich public schools will receive free lunch and breakfast each day, eliminating the need for staff to both determine whether students qualify and track those who might fall behind on payments.

The school system’s food services program announced it will take part in the federal Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program, which calls for offering free lunches and breakfasts to all students. Norwich Director of Food Services Erin Perpetua said already 78 percent of Norwich students were deemed eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts, and 63.4 percent of students were identified as eligible for free lunches based on their enrollment in Medicaid and/or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly food stamps.

Federal guidelines state that school districts qualify for the free lunch and breakfast program if at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free lunches.

“Every year, the state Department of Education requires that we look into it,” Perpetua said. “We looked into it a few years ago, and numbers weren’t high enough. We could only do it if we could at least break even.”

Perpetua said because more students are eligible, the program now will break even under the free lunch program.

New London Public Schools has offered free lunches and breakfasts to all students for the past several years, said Tyler Olson, communications and marketing manager for that district.

Statewide, 29 districts with 242 schools offered free meals under the Community Eligibility Provision in the 2017-18 school year, state Department of Education spokesman Peter Yazbak said. Applications for the coming school year still are being reviewed.

The National School Lunch Program requires the state to notify school districts of eligibility for the free lunch program, and the school districts must report eligibility data for each school to the federal program, Yazbak said.

Norwich receives reimbursement of $3.33 per student lunch served and $2.14 for breakfast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and receives “an extra few cents” from the Healthy Food Certification program in the National School Lunch Program, Perpetua said. Norwich also receives fresh fruits and vegetables in the Farm to School program, and even sells excess produce to surrounding school districts.

With the switch, all students in the city’s two preschool early learning centers, seven elementary schools, two middle schools and the few students aged 18 and under who attend Norwich Adult Education will receive free lunches and breakfasts. Adult staff will pay for meals, and adult education students are not served meals.

Norwich already offered free suppers to students enrolled in after-school programs, ranging from about 5,000 to 10,000 meals per month, Perpetua said.

Families no longer will have to fill out income eligibility forms for school meal programs but income surveys still will be requested for new and returning students for use in other programs, school officials said.

The switch also simplifies administration of the program, with no need to keep track of which students receive free and reduced lunches and which parents fall behind on their accounts and need to be reminded to pay. Perpetua said school board policies governing payments and the use of inexpensive substitute meals — dubbed “oops” meals for those who forgot to pay — no longer will be needed.

School Business Administrator Athena Nagel said reducing the administrative workload led to a reduction in staff in the program from three to two full-time employees, and one person was laid off with the switch.

Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver welcomed the switch to free meals for all students.

"I'm glad all students will have access to lunch equally," Dolliver said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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