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San Antonio Picks Up Tab for All School Meals

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In San Antonio, getting a free lunch is no cliche: It's school policy.

For the first time, all 61,000 students in the San Antonio public schools this fall can eat their morning and midday meals at school without spending a dime, regardless of their families' incomes.

San Antonio is one of a growing number of districts, in Texas and other states, that have decided in the past few years to offer complimentary cuisine to all students.

While there are no exact estimates on the number of districts that offer free meals to every student, child-nutrition experts count about 37 states that have at least one school using that approach.

Diana Lam, the San Antonio superintendent, said the new policy is designed to encourage more low-income students to take advantage of the federally subsidized meals program set up in 1947 by Congress to offer healthy meals to needy schoolchildren.

More than 88 percent of the district's students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, but only 60 percent routinely participate, Ms. Lam said.

Before this year, participating students were asked to provide a code number to a cafeteria worker, while other students paid cash. Now that there is no difference, Ms. Lam said, "everyone just goes through the lunch line and picks up their tray."

Eliminating the Stigma

Conversely, school officials in Chelsea, Mass., required their students to wear color-coded stickers to show who paid for their meals and who ate lunch for free--until critical news reports forced them to abandon the practice this month.

Kevin Carleton, a spokesman for the Chelsea district, said that the tags were an interim measure while the district waited for permanent identification cards and that parents had not complained that the practice stigmatized students.

Besides eliminating the often sensitive task of identifying which students are eligible, school leaders in San Antonio say, offering free meals to all students also makes good financial sense.

District officials have already projected the plan will save the school system $800,000 this year. The school-meals budget, which calculates in the anticipated savings, is $2.2 million dollars.

While the district's share is expected to drop by an estimated 5 percent under the new plan, the federal portion is expected to rise an equal amount. The federal government generally covers 85 percent to 90 percent of the cost of the district's school-meals program.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the $6 billion meals program, reimburses school districts up to $1.83 for each lunch and $1.01 for each breakfast served daily. In school systems like San Antonio, an increase in reimbursements could mean a significant financial gain if eligible students who had not participated in the program decide to do so.

At the same time, San Antonio officials maintain that the plan saves the district revenue by cutting down on administrative duties and personnel costs. For example, they said that fewer cafeteria workers will be needed to punch in code numbers.

Catching On

Many districts are adopting the free-meals-for-everyone policy because the USDA has relaxed its bureaucratic requirements, child-nutrition experts say. In 1989, a provision in the federal Child Nutrition Act initially gave schools with a high population of low-income students the go-ahead to offer free meals to every child. In 1994, when Congress reauthorized the national school-lunch program, districts were allowed to renew their applications for the "universal meals" provision every three years, instead of every five.

The new federal welfare-reform law reduced the paperwork demands on districts even further. A provision in the law allows districts to forgo the renewal applications altogether if their students' economic status remains virtually the same from the previous year.

Though this school-meals delivery method is still relatively new, a recent Minnesota study shows that it may improve students' readiness to learn. In 1994, Minnesota sponsored a three-year pilot program to provide free breakfasts to students in four elementary schools. The program boosted participation rates from 12 percent to 98 percent; moreover, students in the pilot schools had better attendance, fewer health problems, and greater improvement in reading and math scores than students in nonparticipating schools, the study found.

With those results in mind, child-nutrition advocates hope the approach will catch on.

Michele Tingling-Clemmons, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, offers a quick way for districts to do a cost-benefit analysis: If 75 percent of a district's students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, districts would probably break even financially by letting all students eat free.

"This is an essential way of bringing our tax dollars back into our communities to invest in children," Ms. Clemmons said.

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