Friday, June 6, 2014

Low income parents embarrassed to apply for free school meals

PHILADELPHIA - It's estimated that one in six Pennsylvania households with children doesn't have access to enough food - and that while those kids qualify for free meals at school, many aren't taking advantage. A new program aims to change that.

Some parents find applying for free school meals uncomfortable, said Julie Zaebst, policy center manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, adding that students may feel embarrassed if they feel it's being viewed as "getting a handout."

The Community Eligibility Provision streamlines the process, she said, and provides meals to all students at schools with a high percentage of low-income families.

"Schools identify their percentage of low-income students by looking at participation in other programs, like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] or food stamps, cash assistance or medical assistance," Zaebst said. "And if a large number of students are enrolled in these other programs, then the schools know they are low-income and would benefit from free meals at school."

Curtistine Walker, director of food service for the Pittsburgh School District, said making students comfortable about free school meals helps to increase their participation and ensures they get the nutrition they need to learn.

"Whenever there's less stress associated with just going into the line and getting your meal, and not having anyone notice whether you're paying or not paying, everyone just feels much more at ease going and getting their breakfast and their lunch, and it's not an issue," Walker said.

In a state the size of Pennsylvania, Zaebst said, CEP can be a life-changing initiative for at-risk children.

"There are hundreds of schools in Pennsylvania that are eligible to adopt this Community Eligibility model for the 2014-2015 school year," she said. "So, this could be reaching hundreds of thousands students starting next year."

Community Eligibility is available to schools where 40 percent or more of students qualify for free meals. In the initial roll-out, 4,000 schools in 11 states used CEP, and early results show it leads to more children being fed, particularly at breakfast.

Tom Joseph

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