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Parma schools to offer free lunches to all students

A student puts food on a cafeteria tray at Parma Senior High School on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A student puts food on a cafeteria tray at Parma Senior High School on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. The school district is moving to provide free lunches to all after years of dealing with students and families accruing student lunch debt.

Starting this coming school year, Parma City School District will be offering free school lunch to all students.

The news is both welcome for families but also somewhat troubling, said Superintendent Charles Smialek. It's largely made possible because the number of low-income students the district serves has increased in recent years.

Almost half of Parma's students are considered "economically disadvantaged," according to Ohio Department of Education data. That share has increased by almost 10% since the 2010-2011 school year.

Due to that high percentage of low-income students, the district is now eligible for reimbursement for the cost of meals by the federal government, through a program called the Community Eligibility Provision. Other school districts like Cleveland and Akron have long used the program to provide free meals for all students.

On the bright side, the district can now ensure all students are fed, Smialek said.

"Calculus is going to be a little bit less engaging or important to them if they're sitting there, and they're having stomach pain because they haven't eaten in two days," he said.

Previously, low-income parents would need to apply each year for free or reduced-price lunches, which was an additional headache for people already struggling, Smialek said. That will no longer be the case.

Also a thing of the past: school lunch debt

Families have accrued almost $17,000 in debt for lunches over the last school year, said Emily Gladdish, Parma's Nutrition Services supervisor.

Although many schools are eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision — starting with those that have 25% or more low-income students — schools often need to have far higher numbers of students in poverty for the government to reimburse districts enough to make the program worth it, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association.

Typically, that means schools with 60% low-income students or higher are using the program and others below that threshold miss out, she said.

Those numbers are based on how many students' families are participating in free- and reduced-lunch programs already, as well as other means-tested government aid programs like SNAP, also called food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF.

A change in policy made the free-lunch program possible

Starting this year, families in Ohio that receive Medicaid, the state-run health insurance program for the poor, also can now be "directly certified" to automatically receive free or reduced lunch. That which bumped Parma's numbers up enough to make the Community Eligibility Provision worth it. Because of that, Gladdish and Smialek both said the district won't have any increased costs to provide the free lunches.

Gladdish added that the quality of meals won't decrease now that Parma is offering free meals for all. The district is looking to actually increase the number of local ingredients and scratch-made meals it serves in the coming year, she said.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.