District 211 Participation in Free and Reduced Lunch Program Ensures All Students Receive Healthy Food Options

cafeteriaHigh School District 211 has a diverse student population, and because of this, each school strives to ensure the needs of individual students are met. This is one reason District 211 participates in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.

The program allows the District to provide qualifying students meals at a free or reduced rate based on household income. It’s beneficial for District 211 to participate in the program because it allows every student access to a meal that is nutritionally balanced and meets strict federal requirements.

“The program offers every student a meal choice at an affordable rate, and offers a growing number of students qualifying for free or reduced rate meals access to meals that they may not otherwise receive,” said Lauren Hummel, director of Food Service in District 211. “Additionally, operating this program is cost neutral for District 211.”

The program is governed through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the majority of applications are based on two criteria: the total household gross income and the number of people who live in the household. Each July, the USDA releases income criteria for the free and reduced lunch program, and it is based on the United States poverty level.

For the upcoming school year, a family of four would have to make less than $43,568 gross annual income to qualify for reduced meals; which is 185 percent of the Federal poverty level.  Free meal benefits are also available and income guidelines must fall below 130 percent of the poverty level, or be less than $30,615 annually for a family of four.

After the qualifying criteria are released, a mass mailing is sent to everyone in the District towards the end of July. Families complete the application, and if they meet the federal income guidelines, they are approved with income verification occurring throughout the year. There are some other special circumstances that qualify a student for free or reduced lunch, for example, if the student is considered homeless or if the family is already receiving “SNAP” benefits through the government. A qualifying student’s eligibility is kept confidential and is not identifiable at school.

“The District takes great measures to ensure that student confidentiality is protected for those receiving free or reduced rate meals,” Hummel said. “Our students use ID cards to access either meal benefits and/or their prepayment accounts. Because students use their ID cards to access both of these benefits, there is no identification of their eligibility in the serving lines.”

Over the past 10 years, District 211 has seen a rise in the number of students who qualify for the program. In 2003, the District had roughly eight percent of its student population receiving free or reduced lunch. The current qualifying student population is more than 30 percent. The increase in enrollment in the program isn’t unique to District 211 schools, but schools all over the region.

While schools participating in the National School Lunch Program receive government donated foods, District 211 has the ability to request only products that meet their high quality standards.  The District chooses to maximize their government funded support by choosing items such as fresh produce (often produced locally), frozen berries, and whole grain items which allow greater variety in the menus.

“Quality is of great importance to us.  We use many name brand products in school meals that you would find on the shelves in the grocery store,” Hummel said. “Meals also feature homemade breads and soups, fresh fruits and vegetables, and freshly prepared salads among other things. It is important for us to offer the same quality of food to all our students.”

Additionally, District 211 undergoes nutritional audits conducted by the Illinois State Board of Education to ensure that their meals meet strict nutritional criteria and offer students the proper nutrients.

“One of the most common questions that I hear is regarding pizza being served as a vegetable in school lunches. District 211 does not consider pizza or anything of the like as a vegetable.  We feel that it is important for a student to have access to fruits and vegetables that they can see, and also choose.  This is our time to educate students outside of the classroom.”

More information about the free and reduced lunch program can be found on the District website. Application information for the upcoming school year will be mailed to District 211 students toward the end of July.