A January article by the Associated Press raised national concerns that parents across the country are struggling with school lunch debt. But New Haven Public Schools is not one of those districts.
The AP report cited a September study by the nonprofit School Nutrition Association, which found that parents in three-quarters of the 1,100 districts across the country struggled to pay for their children’s school lunches. A similar study in 2014 found that families in nearly 71 percent of districts faced those issues. Despite those high figures, only 24 percent of school districts utilize the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program established in 2010 which funds districts so they can provide free lunches and breakfasts to all students.
The federal government primarily determines CEP eligibility by the number of students eligible for food stamps in the district, said Gail Cairns-Sharry, executive director of food services for NHPS.
NHPS is one of those districts that utilizes the CEP, providing free lunch to the more than 20,000 Elm City children enrolled. According to census data released in 2010, New Haven has the second-highest poverty level in Connecticut, after Hartford, at 26.7 percent of the population.
“[Lunches] are free at every school that is a part of New Haven Public Schools,” Cairns-Sharry said. “We have a breakfast program. We have a lunch program. At Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, [we are also] doing a supper program.”
As a part of the CEP, the federal government reimburses the district for children’s meals, she said. She added that the policy does not cover public charter schools unaffiliated with the district, such as Amistad Academy Elementary School or Common Ground High School.
Even before CEP, the district began to provide free lunches for kindergarten through eighth-grade students through the federally-funded National School Lunch program in 2006, as reported by the New Haven Independent. But this policy did not cover all high schools in the city, according to the NHPS website. The federal government began the CEP program in 2010 with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and New Haven adopted it in 2014 with the help of advocacy by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said NHPS Chief Operating Officer William Clark.
Besides school lunches, the district offers breakfasts, some suppers and after school snacks, Cairns-Sharry said. She explained that after-school meals are available to all students attending additional educational and enrichment programs.
The district also provides meals to students over the summer, both at school programs and public parks. The summer meal schedules and locations are posted online, she added. NHPS meals are also based on federal health regulations which outline specific requirements for school lunch content.
But some parents expressed concern to the News about the quality of New Haven school lunches.
Melissa Hinman, member of the Parent Teacher Association at East Rock Community Magnet School, said her two children are often unsatisfied with school lunch options. Although she believes the food is generally healthy, she wished the district included more popular options among children, citing black bean burgers and deli meat as unpopular choices.
Though Himan acknowledged it is good that New Haven offers free lunches to all students regardless of income levels, she worries that program has led food quality to suffer.
Another East Rock parent and PTA member, Yury Maciel-Andrews, expressed concern at the food options, which seem to be unappealing to kids even though they are healthy. This could lead children to throw food away or choose unhealthier options, leading them to miss out on eating nutritious food.
“Kids do need that nourishment,” she said. “A lot of them might not be able to have food when they come home.”
The NHPS Central Kitchen & Offices is located at 75 Barnes Ave.