Free breakfast comes to Forest Grove schools
For the first time this school year, students across the Forest Grove School District will be able to eat breakfast at the school for free.
The district applied and qualified for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Provision 2. The federal program will cover the cost of breakfast for students at all district schools — without affecting the district's general fund.
"This is something that I have been doing research on for the last year," said the district's nutrition services director, Stacie Reiter. "It was always kind of my dream to offer free breakfast for all students in Forest Grove, and I was trying to figure out how to make it work financially."
Districts can qualify for the program if they have a high enough percentage of students enrolled and qualified for free and reduced-price meals.
"We are offering breakfast for free to increase excitement and participation and all the good things that come with eating breakfast, but with that we are coupling it with this push to have families fill out these free and reduced income applications," Reiter said.
Income data for the district shows enough students would qualify for free and reduced-price meals to keep the provisional program going, but the number of parents and guardians who actually apply for the program does not match.
This is the base year for the program, and dependent on how many parents and guardians administrators are able to get to fill out the form, the district could maintain and potentially expand the free meals offered for the following three years before needing to reapply.
"What we can do to be more equitable with our programs across the district?" Reiter asked rhetorically. "The easiest way to do that, through all of the data and all the research, was to offer free breakfast for every kid in the district because our current free and reduced percentage is high enough to support it. And with (the push to fill out forms), it could potentially solidify this not only for breakfast for the next three years but could potentially, where the need is highest, expand this program to free lunch as well."
Last school year, the district, much like others in the state, accrued thousands of dollars of debt after a law intended to end so-called "lunch-shaming" was passed by the Legislature. The law was created to ensure students are always fed at school, regardless of their financial situation, ensuring that students are given the same meal options as everybody else and aren't singled out for their inability to pay.
The flip side is that means staff are unable to ask students to pay for their meals or remind them of money owed. Communication is to go directly through parents or guardians, which hasn't always been successful. Because staff aren't able to ask or remind students to pay for their lunch or breakfast, students often forget they have money in their backpack, or to ask their parents to provide it.
This district participating in the provisional program may be helpful in ensuring the district doesn't find themselves in the same situation this year.
"It really plays a part in that," Reiter said. "By not charging students for breakfast, we eliminate some of that bad debt that we weren't able to collect on last year, while providing this for students: really reducing the stigma associated with breakfast at school. It's kind of got this stigma around it that only low-income children eat breakfast at school, so it really takes that away."
It also ensures that all students have access to breakfast each day, something that has been proven to support the education process, Reiter said.
"There's a lot of research out there that shows it improves educational outcomes as well, so students that eat breakfast at school tend to have better attendance, better behavior, they academically perform better," said Reiter. "It's helping us kind of recoup some of that debt while providing all of these other benefits."
Parents and guardians are encouraged to fill out the free and reduced applications to determine if their student may be eligible. The applications were mailed directly to homes in August, according to the district. But a copy can also be found online at https://district.ode.state.or.us and at any school building, including the district office.
"I'm just really excited about this," Reiter said. "It's something that I've been working towards for a long time. I'm thrilled that the school district sees the value in it, and we are already seeing increased participation in breakfast. We have served 500 more breakfast meals already than we did last year at this time, so the word is definitely getting out, and students are taking advantage of it, and I couldn't be happier."
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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