Orange Schools to offer free meals for all students in 2023-24

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | July 25, 2023

All students can eat a free breakfast and lunch at all Orange County Public Schools when classes resume in August, a move experts say can improve academics, attendance and cafeteria finances.

OCPS offered the free meals to everyone at 75% of its schools last year, but Central Florida’s largest school district will expand that to all its campuses for the 2023-24 school year, it announced this week.

The Lake County school district made the same, meals-for-all move several years ago.

For years, students from low-income families could, under the federal school lunch program, eat free or reduced-price schools meals wherever they attended school. In the spring, 69% of OCPS students qualified for the program, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.

Qualifying all students — even if some individual families earn too much to be eligible individually — eliminates the requirement that parents to fill out financial applications and that staff review and approve them. That can help lunchroom operations run more smoothly and “minimizes stigma,” the district said in a statement.

OCPS offered free meals to everyone during the pandemic, but federal approval for that effort ended last year. The district then decided this year to apply for the federal government’s “community eligibility provision,” so that all schools could offer breakfast and lunch at no charge.

That provision, authorized by Congress in 2010, requires that an average of 40% of students qualify as low-income, a threshold the district meets.

“Every student deserves access to healthy food, regardless of their background,” OCPS wrote on its Facebook page when it announced the decision. “We believe this will enhance our students’ well-being and academic performance and reduce the stigma associated with receiving free or reduced-price meals.”

The announcement drew quick praise online. “Way to go OCPS! Best news out of Florida in a while,” wrote one woman.

“This is something we can celebrate,” wrote another.

The policy will cover breakfast and lunch but not extra items sold a la carte, such as cookies and chips, OCPS said.

The schools new to the free-meals effort are in some of Orange’s wealthier areas, including Avalon Park, Dr. Phillips, Horizon West, Lake Nona and Winter Park. But the schools there still enroll students who qualify for free meals. At Hamlin Elementary in the new Horizon West development in west Orange, for example, about 15% of the students, or 80 youngsters, got free or reduced-price meals last school year.

Serving all students free breakfast and lunch is associated with higher math test scores, better attendance and fewer behavior problems, analysts with the Brookings Institute noted in a paper last year. School districts that make everyone eligible typically boost participation in school lunch programs and can then see savings through the economies of scale, they wrote, though some district administrators worry the expansion could be costly.

The Food Research and Action Council, which advocates for programs to end poverty-related hunger, urges districts that qualify to offer the free meals. “Community eligibility is a win for everyone,” its website says.

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