Every elementary and middle school student of the Jamestown Public Schools district is now eligible to receive free school meals.
For the second consecutive year, JPS has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education and the state Education Department to serve breakfast and lunch at no charge through the Universal Free Meal program.
While six of JPS' schools were eligible for the program during its first year of participation, the free meal program has expanded throughout the district to include students in every building except the high school. These students will not be required to fill out a free or reduced meal application to be eligible for the program.
According to Walt Gaczewski, JPS director of food services, the Universal Free Meal program is relatively new and currently only approved in four states, but will be available to all states by next year. The program is sponsored by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which uses census data to determine student need in high-poverty areas rather than relying on paper applications for each student. Gaczewski said the district was a willing participant when it learned of the program last year.
"We took advantage of it as soon as it came out," Gaczewski said. "Research shows that children who eat a well-balanced breakfast and lunch perform better in school, and this program supports child nutrition programs and increases breakfast and lunch participation while eliminating any barriers hindering a child's ability to participate."
Gaczewski said the reason JPS is a participant in the program while other area school districts are not is due to a higher percentage of students who live in Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program households, which are recipients of food stamps. Last year's eligible schools - Washington Middle and Ring, Bush, Love, Fletcher and Lincoln elementary schools - were automatically deemed eligible to participate based on higher percentages of students already receiving free or reduced meals.
This year, Gaczewski said, Persell Middle School and Jefferson Middle School are the newest additions to the program, which is slated to run through the 2016-17 school year.
In its first year at JPS, Gaczewski said the program contributed to a 20 percent increase in breakfasts served and a 9 percent increase in lunches served. Overall, he said, the participating buildings served breakfast to approximately 35 percent of students and lunch to approximately 80 percent.
"So four out of five kids were getting lunch every day," Gaczewski said. "Not every student participates, but they don't have to because it's completely optional. It's the same meal pattern, with the same rules and regulations, that every other school district has to deal with."
Tim Mains, JPS superintendent, spoke to the significance of the increase of meals served by the district in a statement released by the district Thursday.
"Many Jamestown children rely on school meals," Mains said. "Our district has a 70 percent poverty rate. If we can increase school meal participation through this program at the elementary and middle school level, we can make not only progress in childhood hunger but also increase the likelihood of a child's success during the school day."
The increased percentage of students receiving meals is also financially beneficial to the district because it is reimbursed for every meal served. The current free meal reimbursement rates, which apply to 97 percent of meals served, is $3.07 for lunch and $1.99 for breakfast. The remaining 3 percent of paid meals served are reimbursed at currently paid rates of 42 cents and 24 cents for lunch and breakfast, respectively.
By this standard, Gaczewski said having the high school participate in the program wouldn't be as financially viable as it will only be reimbursed at 91 percent of meals served; making the district unable to make up the cost. The rates are variable and are based on the number of district students who are eligible for Women, Infants and Children Nutritional Services.
"A lot of people don't realize that we're totally self-supported, and we don't take any money from the local tax base," Gaczewski said of the food services department. "Everything is paid out of the cafeteria fund, which is totally funded through federal and state government reimbursement. That's something to be proud of."
Although high school students are not automatically eligible to receive the benefits of the free meal program, they are able to submit an application to determine their individual eligibility. Forms are available on JPS' website at www.jamestownpublicschools.org on the Food Services Department homepage. High school free meal applications can be submitted at any Jamestown school location.
"We encourage students to apply, and it's beneficial to the district because we get a higher reimbursement rate for those students," Gaczewski said.
If a parent or guardian has questions regarding the Universal Free Meal program or the requirements for Jamestown High School families, please contact the JPS Food Service office at 483-4398.