Pizza and hot ham and cheese sandwiches are on the menu for the first day of school in Nashville. And this year, all 85,000 students eat for free thanks to federal taxpayers – even kids in wealthy parts of town who tend to bring a sack lunch from home.
Some schools in areas like Green Hills and Forest Hills have as many as 70 or 80 percent of students who don’t even go through the cafeteria line, says Metro Schools nutritional services director Braina Corke.
“A ‘high lunchbox school,’ is what we would call it,” Corke says.
But the number of lunchboxes is expected to plummet under a new federal program designed for districts with high poverty rates. Everyone eats free. And in order to be reimbursed by the federal government, that means everyone. Even kids who are dropped off in a new Lexus can’t be charged.
District leaders say the upshot to feeding kids who can easily pay is that it reduces the stigma for those who can’t afford it. Still, Corke says she will need extra staff in what were previously under-utilized cafeterias.
“What happens when participation increases is we add more staff,” she says. “We are hoping that every one of those children eat. We want to be able to add more staff and feed every student in MNPS.”
Officials with the USDA, which reimburses qualifying school districts, make no apologies for picking up the tab on everyone’s meal.
“We actually know in the aggregate that this is going to benefit the school system,” USDA undersecretary Kevin Concannon tells WPLN. “If we can make sure that all of those kids have equal access each day to healthy foods, to me, that is a plus.”
This is the first year that the USDA’s universal free lunch program has been available in every state. To qualify as a district, a school system has have at least 40 percent of students on subsidized meals. Nashville already has 74 percent on free or reduced price lunches. All Shelby County Schools are also participating.
Districts outside of Nashville don’t have poverty rates high enough to justify the program, but they can apply on a school-by-school basis. Murfreesboro has 10 schools where everyone will eat free this year. Cheatham County has five.