GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?
At Grand Rapids public schools, every student will get a free breakfast and lunch - regardless of their family income.
GRPS is part of a pilot program through the USDA called the Community Eligibility Option -- a part of the 2010 " Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 ."
"It's part of the education process and I think USDA has recognized and the Department of Education has recognized the critical role that school meals play in making a productive school day," said Paul Baumgartner, the Director of Nutrition Services at GRPS. "School meals make a difference and they make a difference for every single student in the United States. We're here to support the academic achievement and getting kids focusing on their teachers and their studies. You can't do that on an empty stomach."
Only at-risk school districts are eligible, those districts that have a certain percentage of students whose families rely on public assistance. GRPS qualifies -- nearly 85% of its about 17,000 students already qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Information on the USDA's website says the program is to streamline the process of handing out school lunches -- saving school districts the time and cost of processing free lunch applications and figuring out who is who at lunch time.
"I think it will make our cafeteria settings a little more sane," Baumgartner said. "Lines are going to move faster, kids can concentrate on enjoying the meal rather than waiting in line. The whole concept of 'that's a poor kids line and I don't need to be part of that,' that's all gone."
But there are strings attached.
In order for the district to get reimbursed for those free lunches (at a cost of around $2.75) they need to follow guidelines for things like calories, portion control and nutrition. And no student can leave the lunch line without a fruit or vegetable on their plate.
New school lunch guidelines (interactive)
When 24 Hour New 8 asked how district officials can make sure kids are actually eating those healthy options, Baumgartner said they do that in many ways.
When students see "that [the principal] is walking around eating a spinach salad, that has a powerful impact on students young and old in terms of, hey, this isn't a big deal. I can eat this and this is fun and it's a healthy choice," he told 24 Hour News 8.
He also said the district has nutrition coaches -- adults who come in and sit at elementary lunch tables once a week to be "cafeteria mentors" -- who encourage kids to eat fruits and vegetables.
GRPS leaders said they're using this as an opportunity to encourage kids to eat healthier by eliminating bad food choices.
"Just like mom said at home, 'eat your veggies, eat your fruit,' the USDA is saying the same thing and we support that. We think that's great because we know how important fresh fruits and vegetables are in the diet," said Baumgartner. He also said he doesn't see any problem with eliminating unhealthy options.
"By directing and providing direction on fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy choices, that's the best medical care, that's the best health care policy we can ever have," he said.
The program also eliminates a problem food service worker Pam Marcusse has seen over and over in her years with GRPS.
"I don't have to say you're out of money and going home and telling Mom," Marcusse said. "What happens if Mom has no money?"
Baumgartner said the goal is to change the choices people make after they leave the district.
The changes will take time.
"They're going to be subtle, long-term changes, kind of like the smoking campaign," he said. "Smoking isn't what it once was and we're hoping that we're going to start seeing this influence ripple out throughout the whole community."
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