NB schools launch universal free breakfast and lunch program

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — New Bedford public schools now offer universal breakfast and lunch to all students at no extra charge. School officials tell Eyewitness News the new, federal program will not only free up parents from packing school lunches, but also offers an educational benefit for teachers and students.

“Children who have a full stomach will feel happy about what they’ve eaten, have the energy and focus to do the hard learning we want them to do and not worry about a growling stomach and not worry about where am I going to get my food to eat,” Dr. Pia Durkin, superintendent of New Bedford Public Schools told Eyewitness News.

The universal free meal program launched at the start of the district’s 2014-2015 school year. It’s part of an expanded federal program where every school with 40-percent or more of its students qualifying for assistance get free meals for everyone.

Dr. Durkin says district leaders jumped at the opportunity to help students and staff focus on their jobs.

“We knew this was not only going to be good for kids, but able to maximize our time to do the right things in terms of teaching and learning.”

According to district officials, 75-percent of the 12,600 students in New Bedford schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. Dr. Durkin says the universal meal program eliminates any stigma free meals may have in the eyes of students.

“They don’t want to return the forms and therefore they become ineligible and we want to be able to say that New Bedford public schools are a welcoming place for all children, that we make sure their basic needs are met so they can be the best scholars in the state,” Dr. Durkin said.

New Bedford district officials tell Eyewitness News the process for applying for the universal free meals program is arduous, however Dr. Durkin said the benefits outweigh the legwork for her district.

Eyewitness News has learned nine school districts in Rhode Island qualify for the federal universal free meals program. According to a spokesman for Rhode Island Department of Education, only The Met School in Providence offers the universal free meal program to all of its students. However, all Rhode Island public schools offer free or reduced meals to those students who do financially qualify.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, 35 school systems throughout Massachusetts qualify for the universal meal program.


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