Some students toted lunchboxes to the first day of school in Boston this week, but district administrators are expecting that could become a more unusual sight as parents learn about a federal program that is providing all public school students in the city with free breakfast and lunch.
The nation's oldest school system has joined a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that has spread to 10 states and the District of Columbia that offers students two free meals every school day, whether or not their families can afford them.
Known as Community Eligibility Option, the program is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that authorized $4.5 billion in new program funding. For schools to qualify, federal officials said, more than 40 percent of students have to be getting food stamps or aid through certain other federal assistance programs.
Besides easing hunger, school officials said, the program helps erase a stigma that plagued some students from poor families.
Boston joins schools in Detroit, Atlanta, Washington and elsewhere in a program that will be available across the country starting in the 2014-2015 school year.
Efrain Toledano, principal of the Maurice J. Tobin School in Boston's Roxbury section, said he expects the program will cut down on potential disruptions at the K-8 school by easing hunger pangs that could be linked to classroom misbehavior. "We know that calm stomachs means calm students who are ready to learn in classrooms," he said.
Jim Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center in Washington, said the program saves schools money because it's less expensive to feed more students than to do paperwork for children who qualify for free or reduced price meals.