The first part was to stop lunch shaming. In April, RI Future flagged the Pawtucket School District as one of several in Rhode Island that serves cold cheese sandwiches to students if their parents don’t pay their food bill on time – a practice known as lunch shaming. Since then, the School Committee changed its lunch policy to ensure every student has the same access to food.
“We repealed our alternate lunch policy,” DiCesno said. “We don’t make cheese sandwiches anymore.”
A timeline of the transition away from lunch shaming created by Superintendent Patti DiCesno says RI Future’s coverage (Part 1: the Suburban schools say let students eat cheese sandwiches; Part 2: Urban schools and cheese sandwiches) was followed by public comments to the school committee, then an investigation, and ultimately a new policy.
“I took it seriously when I got the message from you,” DiCesno told me.
But Pawtucket didn’t stop there. Over and above eliminating lunch shaming, it also became one of a handful of urban school districts experimenting with a relatively new federal program that allows schools or districts to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students.
It’s called the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program.
CEP has been federal law since 2010, but it was an unrealistic option for Rhode Island school districts until last year. Because every student eats for free, CEP eliminates the need to collect free and reduced lunch data. But free and reduced lunch data is one of the criteria Rhode Island’s school funding formula uses to allot economically disadvantaged school districts extra money.
Pawtucket estimates it would deduct about $3,000 per student from the funding formula without the data. Other urban school districts were in a similar predicament, said state Department of Education school nutrition officials. In 2016, the legislature altered the state education funding formula so that districts could use alternate poverty data, according to RIDE officials.
Central Falls and the Met School became the first school districts in Rhode Island to offer all students breakfast and lunch for free through CEP last year. Providence, which tested the program at four schools that year, is expanding CEP this year to every elementary school.
“Good nutrition impacts every facet of the lives of growing children, and research shows that children who eat healthy lunches are more likely to achieve in school,” said Providence Public School Superintendent Chris Maher when PPSD announced the move. “Providing free, nutritious lunches for our elementary school students makes good sense.”
Pawtucket is starting with two elementary schools this year: Baldwin and Cunnignham.
“Our plan is to add schools each year,” DiCesno said. “We’re pretty excited about this. We really wanted to do Slater (Middle School) as well. RIDE recommended we start off small.”
Schools or districts are eligible for CEP if more than 40 percent of the student body uses SNAP, TANF, or another such social service. In Rhode Island, 88 individual public schools are eligible and 5 entire school districts – Central Falls, Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and Newport. Several charter schools are also eligible, but many eligible charter schools contract for food services with eligible traditional school districts.
CEP doesn’t necessarily make serving lunch any cheaper for school districts. If more than 62.5 percent of students meet CEPs criteria, every lunch is reimbursed at the free rate of $3.25 per meal. If fewer than 62.5 percent of students meet the CEP criteria, the school district is reimbursed $.33 per meal for whatever number of students doesn’t help the school or district qualify for CEP.
At Baldwin Elementary School, where 56 percent of the students help the school qualify, the district will spend an extra $8,000 serving food because of CEP. But at Cunningham Elementary School, where the “identified student percentage” is 61 percent, Pawtucket will save $10,000, according to Melissa Devine, the District business manager.
There are six schools in Woonsocket with ISPs higher than 60 percent, so it’s possible that district might be able to save some money on school lunch with CEP. Woonsocket asked RIDE about CEP last year, but didn’t follow through. West Warwick also has two schools that could benefit.
But while CEP can lower food costs for the most economically disadvantaged schools, it’s not without its downsides to districts. The state funding formula still requires a child poverty metric; in lieu of free and reduced lunch data districts must have student’s families complete an income survey. This can be more difficult than getting families to register for free or reduced lunch because the benefit of giving the information seems less direct.
“There’s still some work for the district to do with the funding formula,” said DiCesno. “We feel confident we can get it done.”