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Lynn Public School program offers free meals to all students

LYNN — After more than three months into a new program that allows Lynn Public Schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of income status, results show there has been an increase in the number of kids who eat at school.

Over the summer, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) approved a request from school administrative officials to enter into the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) Program, part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The program is aimed at ensuring no kids go hungry and reduces the stigma of low-income families who may have otherwise had to apply for free meals. All students can receive a free breakfast and lunch, regardless of their status.

“Now taking away the stigma of someone having to put a number in or somehow maybe having to identify themselves is gone, so now more kids are eating the lunches and breakfast than ever before,” said School Business Administrator Kevin McHugh. “I don’t have proof, but it’s good to see at that level, we saw a good-sized bump.”

Results nearly halfway into the school year show that the amount of students eating breakfast and lunch district-wide has increased an average of 7 percent. Results are higher at the high school level, where students were shown to be more interested in lunch, according to McHugh.

The state predicted school districts would see an increase of 5 to 9 percent with the program. In October, results showed 81 percent of all students in the district took a lunch, but McHugh hopes to inch that figure closer to 90 percent.

School Committee member Brian Castellanos said offering free meals at school is essential — through his work as a social worker, he sees families who rely on those meals, because their kids may not get anything to eat at home.

“Some kids, this is sometimes all they’re going to eat and they’ll wait for the next meal the next day,” he said. “I think that Lynn is going to be a pioneer on a lot of the way we’re going to go about how we increase equity (in) food.”

School Committee member Lorraine Gately said from her years as a teacher, it was clear that test scores align with nutrition.

“When a student is fed and has a good, solid meal in their stomach they do well. They do better on testing,” she said.

Much of the ongoing effort and challenge, McHugh said, has been on increasing the quality of the food offered at the schools, while still adhering to stringent nutritional guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Efforts are being made to retool what menu items are offered at schools in an attempt to offer food the kids like. Student surveys have been conducted to see what the kids are responding favorably to.

“We want to meet all the guidelines, but we want the students to take the meals and consume the meals,” said McHugh. “I want them to eat the meals. That’s the success of the program, not just taking the meal and getting a reimbursement. Ultimately, if they eat it, they’re going to get the nutritional value as well.”

In addition to menu changes, the district is piloting several new programs, including two with the New England Dairy Council to offer breakfast smoothies at Thurgood Marshall Middle School and a health and fitness program, Play 60 Program, for students at Ingalls and Drewicz Elementary schools. Thanks to a collaboration with One Mighty Mill, fresh bagels will soon be offered at Lynn English High School.

What prompted school administrative officials to look into improving the quality of food in the district was a group of Lynn mothers who appeared before the School Committee in April to demand Lynn Public Schools provide better food to their children.

Madres de Lynn, a Latino parents group founded by the North Shore Labor Council’s Women’s Committee, said the kids were coming home hungry and that food was being thrown out because they wouldn’t eat it. They reported expired milk and juice and chicken that tasted like plastic.

Administrative officials are working with the group to continue to make improvements to the menu.

School Committee vice-chair Donna Coppola, one of the driving forces behind the effort to offer free meals, said the Madres were able to push the needle in a way she couldn’t and shows parents they do have a voice and it’s important for officials to hear from them.

When McHugh applied for the CEP program last spring, it was the first time it was economically feasible for the school department to send an application to DESE. In the past, it had been cost prohibitive.

DESE only counts students in the district who are “direct certified,” which means they were receiving assistance and listed on the state’s database. Over the past two years, the school administration has worked to increase the district’s direct certified students by comparing its student database against the state databases.

That resulted in an increase of the district’s direct certified rate from 51 percent to 58.4 percent at the time it applied for the CEP program, which allows the Lynn Public Schools to receive a net profit of approximately $100,000 annually. To qualify for the program, a school district must have a direct certified rate of at least 40 percent.

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