For Chicago's Kids There Really Is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch

Thanks to a new federal program, meals for all public school students won't cost Windy City families a dime.

(Photo: USDA/Flickr)

Jul 8, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Much of the recent national conversation about school lunches has revolved around whether we’ll keep feeding a generation of overweight kids cheap, high-fat pizza, Tater Tots, and chicken nuggets. While healthier options are great and worth fighting for, they can’t make much difference if a family can’t afford to pay for its child to eat them. It turns out that so many public school students are poor in Chicago that the federal government is stepping in and giving every kid meals for free.

The free breakfast and lunch program, which will launch citywide when school starts in September, comes courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Community Eligibility Option program. Individual schools are eligible to participate if at least 40 percent of students are low income. Nearly 90 percent of public school students in the Windy City are growing up in impoverished homes.

“If a student eats that day, the district gets reimbursed,” Leslie Fowler, executive director of Chicago Public Schools’ nutritional support services told the Chicago Tribune. “But if they don’t eat, then CPS doesn’t get reimbursed and there’s no cost associated with that meal. We can’t predict what they do or don’t do, but we hope we can encourage them to participate.”

In the past, kids were often only eligible for free or reduced-price lunch if their parents took the time to fill out and turn in a cumbersome application. Sometimes families don’t turn in the forms because they don’t realize they’ll qualify for the meals, or because they’re too embarrassed to admit they’ve fallen on hard times and need help. Adopting this program also eliminates fraud by families that know they make slightly too much to be eligible but still can’t afford to feed their kids.

The program has been operating at 400 schools in low-income neighborhoods. The expansion to the entire city means the low-income child attending a more middle class school in a North Side neighborhood like Lincoln Park won’t have to face the stigma of being the only kid in the lunch line handing over a free or reduced-price meal ticket.

The district also anticipates that the money it will save by participating in the program can be funneled back into improving cafeteria infrastructures and the quality of food. So now, in Chicago at least, there's no excuse for kids not having healthier breakfast and lunch options.