NAUGATUCK — Two more Naugatuck schools will participate in a federal program that provides free breakfast and lunch to all students, as the percentage of students eligible for free meals has increased over recent years.
The Board of Education last week approved enrolling Naugatuck High School and City Hill Middle School in the Community Eligibility Provision program for the coming school year. The program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a “non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas,” according to the USDA website. The program allows schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without applications.
According to the USDA, schools must have at least 40 percent of its students directly certified as eligible for free meals to take part in the program. Students can be directly certified in a number of ways, including coming from families that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Medicaid, according to the USDA.
This year, 42.3 percent of City Hill students directly certified for free meals, while 38.6 percent of Naugatuck High students met the criteria.
Even though the high school is under the 40 percent threshold, Business Manager Bernice Rizk said the percentage is close enough to be enrolled because the average is above the benchmark when the schools in the program are grouped together.
Enrolling the schools in the program requires additional hours for cafeteria staff, officials said, but it will not affect the borough’s contract with Sodexo, which provides food services to schools throughout the district.
Rizk said Sodexo is reimbursed by the USDA based on the number of meals it sells under the program.
The addition of Naugatuck High and City Hill to the program will make seven borough schools enrolled over a three-year period. Andrew Avenue Elementary School and Salem Elementary School were enrolled in the program in the 2017-18 school year. Hillside Intermediate School, Hop Brook Elementary School and Western Elementary School were enrolled this school year.
Board members James Scully and Diana Malone last week voted against enrolling the high school and middle school because they felt the borough’s remaining two schools — Cross Street Intermediate School and Maple Hill Elementary School — should also be enrolled.
The two schools fall under the 40-percent threshold for the program, but officials have an option to enroll them since the overall percentage of students in the district that qualify meets the benchmark.
The board is expected to discuss enrolling the two schools during its June meeting.
Enrollment in the program follows a trend in the number of Naugatuck students that qualify for free and reduced lunch overall. In the 2014-15 school year, 44.3 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch. As of October, that number stood at 55 percent, Superintendent of Schools Sharon Locke said.
The number of students on free or reduced lunch is an indicator for the number of low-income students in a school and district.
According to the application on the district’s website, a family a four must earn $32,630 or less per year to qualify for the free lunch program. To qualify for the reduced lunch program, a family of four must earn $46,435 or less per year.
The trend in the schools is being seen in the community at large, too.
Naugatuck Ecumenical Food Bank Director Marty Lee Fenton said the number of families seeking assistance has increased to an average of 100 families a week. The food bank is open two days a week, and people are allowed to use the food bank twice a month, she said.
Every month the food bank sees about 12 new families that haven’t been there before, Fenton said.
“We are giving out a lot of food. Thank goodness people are also donating a lot of food,” Fenton said.
Fenton said the food bank verifies that the people receiving food are from either Naugatuck or Beacon Falls. The food bank also asks people to fill out paperwork about their finances, but does not verify it, Fenton said.
“We take them at their word,” Fenton said. “If people need it and come and stand in line, they are there because they need to be.”
Research shows that poverty can affect students throughout their school career and some students may require additional educational and support services, Locke said. While it is necessary to understand the impact poverty can have on students, she said it’s also vital to recognize that each student is unique and has their own strengths and weaknesses.
Locke said teachers and administrators monitor the growth of each student and intervene with any necessary support, regardless of the student’s background.
“Everything we do every day is making sure each and every one of our kids develops competencies to become life-long learners,” Locke said.