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All pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade pupils in the North Little Rock School District will be able to eat school meals -- breakfast and lunch -- at no charge starting with the coming 2017-18 school year.

The district's School Board voted 6-0 Thursday to make use of the Community Eligibility Provision of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to provide the free meals. The provision allows schools or school districts that enroll high percentages of low-income students to feed all students at no cost to the families and without requiring the families to fill out applications or any other paperwork to qualify for the meals.

North Little Rock School District is among a growing number of districts nationally and in the state to make use of the provision, said Marsha Satterfield, the district's director of child nutrition.

The Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, for example, is providing meals at no charge to students in this current school year. The Stuttgart and Jonesboro school districts are other systems in the state providing free meals to all students.

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Seven of 10 North Little Rock elementary schools, including Pike View Pre-kindergarten Center, meet the 62.5 percent low-income threshold for the free meals. Three schools do not, but the universal free meals are possible if all schools are grouped or are "bundled together," Satterfield said. The individual school percentages range from 14.5 percent to 83 percent.

Because of that "bundling," the district won't be reimbursed 100 percent for all of the meals, but it can offset the shortfall -- 19 cents for each breakfast and 33 cents for each lunch -- by increasing the total number of pupils eating at school, Satterfield said.

"We can make this work," Satterfield said. "It will work and it will benefit our children because we know every child needs proper nutrition. It is vital for them physically and academically. We want these kids to eat breakfast and lunch with us."

Satterfield said she has met with parents at some of the district's schools to encourage them to allow their children to eat the school meals even though their children have not qualified for free or reduced-price lunches or breakfasts under the district's current system of subsidizing school meal costs.

"I said, 'Put your kids in the car. Wash their faces, brush their teeth, put their clothes on, put them in the car and let us do the rest. Let us feed them and let us make that breakfast part of their academic day,'" she said, adding that children are typically not hungry immediately after getting up in the morning.

That creates a struggle for parents to get their children to eat before going to school.

"We'll take that burden off parents. We can save them time and money, and academically prepare these kids for the day," she said.

In response to questions from School Board members, Satterfield said that pupils can continue to carry their lunches from home, but if they also will eat three of the five items being served by the school -- such as a roll, a vegetable and milk -- the district can be reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for that as a full meal.

"We don't expect kids to eat lunch every single day. We know they won't. We know what the kids want -- nuggets, pizza and powdered doughnuts," she said, adding that the doughnuts are made with whole grains.

The universal free-meal program at the elementary schools will not create any new expense for the district, which is in the midst of a multiyear effort to cut operating costs to offset the end of $7.6 million a year in state desegregation aid to the district.

However, it would cost the district $62,000 a month to include North Little Rock Middle School and North Little Rock High School in the free-meals program. Satterfield said that cost is not affordable for the district.

Micheal Stone, the district's executive director of student and equity services, said district leaders plan to provide what is called a "second chance breakfast" to some of the district's older students as a way to collect data on potential student participation in a universal school breakfast program.

'"If we can get the number up high enough, then we can include secondary schools in the Community Eligibility Provision, where all students are eating free in the North Little Rock School District," Stone said. "We want to explore that this next year."

School Board member Tracy Steele asked the district staff to provide at a later date a report on the feasibility of serving the elementary pupils breakfast in their classrooms, which is currently done at some schools in other districts.

Stone and Satterfield said the classroom breakfast program is structured differently from the Community Eligibility Provision program. It has different eligibility requirements and is more labor intensive than serving breakfasts in school cafeterias, they said.

Metro on 05/19/2017

Print Headline: NLR elementary schools to offer free meals for all

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