Borough schools serving more meals

All students can get free breakfast, lunch for first time

NAUGATUCK — Naugatuck schools have served considerably more meals so far this school year, which happens to be the first one that breakfast and lunch are free for all students.

Bernice Rizk, business manager for Naugatuck Public Schools, said through the first three months of this school year the district served 104,013 breakfasts and 202,221 lunches. The number of breakfasts and lunches served are up roughly 48.1% and 16.5%, respectively, compared to the same time last school year.

The overall increase puts the school district on pace to make sure a decision to implement a program to provide free meals to all students doesn’t come with an additional cost, Rizk said.

The Board of Education opted to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) districtwide this school year. Some schools have been utilizing the program for the past two years.

CEP, 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. Under the program, schools provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without applications, and receive federal reimbursement for the meals.

Typically, parents apply for free or reduced meals for their children. Some children are directly certified for free meals based on socioeconomic factors, including homelessness, being in foster care, and coming from families that receive government assistance.

Schools qualify for CEP when 40% of students are directly certified for free meals. Districts can also group schools together or implement CEP districtwide, as long as the overall percentage of directly-certified students is at least 40%.

Naugatuck schools range from 32% of students directly certified to 57%, said Kate Murphy, food services director for Sodexo, a private company that runs the cafeteria program in the district.

The level of federal reimbursement is based on the percentage of directly-certified students, so including schools this year that are under the 40% threshold brought down the overall percentage for the district.

Under the program, Murphy said the district is reimbursed $3.41 for every lunch that would have been considered free and 32 cents for each that would have been considered a paid lunch. The reimbursement for breakfast is $2.20 for a free meal and 31 cents for a paid one.

Heading into this school year, Rizk projected the district needed to increase the number of breakfasts served by 43% and the number of lunches served by 23% for the district to at least break even, since all students now get free meals.

Those projections aren’t set in stone, and it’s the increase in total meals served that will matter in the end, Rizk said.

“We’re up so much more with breakfast (this year), so it balances it out,” Rizk said.

The district implemented several changes to help increase the number of meals served.

Officials added a fourth lunch wave at Maple Hill Elementary School, which has the most students among elementary schools and is in its first year participating in the CEP program.

Several changes were also initiated at Naugatuck High School, which is also participating in the program for the first time.

Murphy said a new breakfast kiosk was opened at the high school and students can also come to the cafeteria during flex time or a study hall in the morning to get breakfast. Officials also converted the school store, which was relocated from the cafeteria at the high school, into another kiosk for lunch that serves items like fresh salads and sandwiches that are quick for students to grab and go, she said.

The changes and free meals have had a noticeable impact at the high school. In November of 2018, there was an average of 229 breakfasts and 662 lunches served a day at the high school, Murphy said. This past November, those figures increased to a daily average of 428 breakfasts and 902 lunches.

Murphy said the district is locked into the CEP program through the 2022-23 school year. The district can reapply if the percentage of directly-certified students increases to get a higher reimbursement, but if the percentage decreases it won’t impact the reimbursement.

The decision of whether to continue with the program is ultimately up to the school board. Despite what Rizk described as an “exciting challenge” to increase the number of meals served, both she and Murphy are recommending the district continue with CEP.

“It’s really very fulfilling to see that we can do this for the families,” Rizk said.