“Providence Public Schools are committed to creating educational environments that support health and wellness,” said School Board member Robert Gondola, the chairman of the board’s Health and Wellness Committee. “The decision to make all elementary school meals free to students removes the financial stress some families may feel and ensures that students have both breakfast and lunch readily available to them.”
Added Providence Superintendent Christopher Maher, “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. Providing free, nutritious lunches for our elementary school students makes good sense.”
The meals will be paid for by the federal government through the Community Eligibility Provision. Part of former President Barack Obama’s 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, CEP allows schools to cease charging students for school meals if more than 40 percent of the student body is eligible for free school meals. While many schools in Rhode Island qualify, few participate. School administrators say federal school meal reimbursement rates, which differ for free, reduced, and CEP lunches, can complicate the decision to seek CEP status.
Central Falls and the Met School are both full CEP school districts. Pawtucket Superintendent Patti DiCenso told RI Future in April her district hasn’t applied for the CEP because it could affect both state and federal funding.
Laura Hart, spokeswoman for PPSD, said the decision for Providence, where 85 percent of the student body already receives a federally-subsidized free or reduced-price lunch, was “revenue neutral because of the reimbursement for CEP.”
Last year, 13 of 22 public elementary schools in the Capital City participated in the CEP program. “Based on the success of the pilot, the Providence Public Schools is now expanding the free meal program to all its elementary schools,” said the press release.
An RI Future post in April on lunch shaming mentioned CEP participation as one way urban school districts are avoiding embarrassing students who may not be able to afford a school meal. After that story, a Providence School Board member told this reporter in an email, “I’ll work on this at my end.” Said Hart, “RI Future helped elevate this conversation statewide.”
It was unclear if Providence plans to become a full CEP school district. The press release said, “On a secondary school level, free and reduced lunch eligibility is still determined on a student-by-student basis, according to family income level. However, in the Providence Public School District, students are not denied lunch if they are unable to pay, regardless of their eligibility.”
Rep. Marcia Ranglin Vassell, a Providence public school teacher, said she will be reintroducing her bill to make every public school meal in Rhode Island free for all students.