John Higgins

Akron’s middle and high school students won’t have to pay for school lunches this fall or even fill out paperwork for a government subsidy.

The district already provides free breakfast in all its schools and free lunch in its elementary buildings.

The Akron school board voted this week to extend that policy to all Akron schools under a new option for districts that participate in the national school lunch program.

The change won’t cost local taxpayers any money and the district is expected to save some money because officials won’t have to print, collect and process applications for free and reduced-price lunches.

“It’s a good thing for the kids. It’s a good thing for the community. It’s a good thing for parents,” said Laura Kepler, coordinator, Child Nutrition Services for Akron Public Schools.

In May, the USDA selected Ohio, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia to take advantage of the new option, which eliminates the need for individual applications for free and reduced price lunches in low-income communities.

The option is included in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and was tried out last year in Michigan, Kentucky and Illinois. Next year, it will be offered to all schools in all states.

The law, which also requires schools to include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in their meals, was championed by first lady Michelle Obama.

Districts must show that at least 40 percent of their students automatically qualify for free and reduced-price lunches because they already receive another government benefit, such as food stamps. Foster children, homeless children and kids enrolled in Head Start also automatically qualify for free school lunches.

Almost 54 percent of the students in Akron’s program automatically qualify for free lunch without having to fill out an application. Another 17 percent of Akron’s middle and high school students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch because of low income, but they must fill out applications.

Akron’s elementary schools have offered free lunch and breakfast for all students since 2003 and do not require parents to fill out application forms.

Akron prints 5,000 meal applications a year for middle schools and high schools and processes about 3,000, Kepler said.

The district has to verify 3 percent of those applications each year, which requires parents to bring in documents proving their income. Every six weeks, school officials also have to certify the eligibility of a few hundred parents who either declare no income or have a temporary change in income because of unemployment or Workers’ Compensation.

Under the new option, the district won’t have to collect those forms or verify and certify income.

“Parents won’t be filling them out; they won’t have to send those in through the school,” Kepler said. “We can focus on our job of serving healthy school meals that keep our students active and learning.”

The Akron school district spent about $9 million last year on school meals, providing about 9,000 breakfasts and 18,000 lunches each day. The federal government pays 94 percent of the cost. Parents pay the rest, about $500,000.

Each middle school and high school lunch costs $2.25.

Students who bought meals every day at full cost paid about $400 a year.

The district will receive enough extra money from the federal government, based on the percentage of students who automatically qualify, to offset the loss of revenue from students who paid for some or all of their meals, Kepler said.

Other school districts supplement the cost of their meal programs through their general funds, but Akron does not, so the change won’t cost local taxpayers.

“We are completely self-supporting and we do not take any money from the general fund,” Kepler said.

Akron spends money more efficiently in food service and other nonteaching areas of the budget, than the four largest school systems in the state, according to a report last year by Ohio Education Matters, a public policy think tank.

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/education.