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No more digging for loose change at the cash register — and the stigma of accepting free meals may go away, too.

All Metro Nashville students, regardless of income and grade, will have access to free school lunches and breakfasts when school begins in August, under a new federal program the district has decided to join.

The shift is predicted to have a powerful effect — more kids will eat. It might also mean longer lunch lines, which already has principals reviewing lunch schedules.

According to Metro's Chief Operating Officer Fred Carr, Nashville's public school district meets thresholds outlined in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Community Eligibility Provision program, which is available to predominantly low-income districts nationwide beginning July 1.

Federal agriculture officials call the program an "alternative approach for offering meals" rather than collecting and processing individual applications for federal free and reduced lunches. Instead, through the National School Lunch Program, schools serve all meals at no cost.

Local districts are then reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students identified as eligible for free meals, one that relies on information from other programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Jaynee Day, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, said she has hoped for this development for two decades.

"It will transform eating habits of children," she said. "They will have much more consistency in their diets.

"The barriers to qualifying and participating in the program previously have been eliminated by this new program so that everybody can feel equal and take part it in and there's no stigma attached with it."

The Community Eligibility Provision, which came out of the 2010 federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, has already phased into some districts in many states. In Kentucky, more than half its districts are taking part. Half are eligible in Tennessee, and according to Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Education, districts such as Cleveland City Schools are among those also taking part.

"What I have explained to districts is this is entirely optional," said Airhart, who crisscrossed the state to share the new program with local school administrators. "It's your choice to continue how you've always done it, and if you want to explore this option, we're certainly glad to help you figure out if financially it works out."

Metro's school cafeterias serve 12.5 million meals every year. The district last year spent $42 million, $31.7 million of which was reimbursed by the USDA.

In Nashville, 72 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals. Under the CEP, the federal government reimburses some meals — the percentage of low-income students multiplied by 1.6 — with its free rate. This expands coverage to students who normally wouldn't qualify for free lunches.

"We've run the calculations, and we believe we can do it at a break-even (cost) all across the district," Carr said. "It doesn't matter what school you go to or what neighborhood."

Metro schools spokeswoman Meredith Libbey said high school free-lunch recipients are known to skip lunch out of a fear of being identified as such. "Obviously, that's the opposite of what we want," she said, adding that the district believes the new program will increase the number of low-income students who eat at school regularly.

Despite the shift, every MNPS family at the beginning of the school year will still have to complete a form that includes household income and other information. Data is used for state accountability purposes and tracking for other programs.

What students will save

  • Metro's school meals will now be free. What they cost in 2013-14:
  • Breakfast: $1.25
  • Lunch, preschool through grade 4: $2.25
  • Lunch, grades 5-12 - $2.50
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