It will be a free-for-all in cafeterias in Harrison School District 2 starting in the fall. No, not a food fight. A fight against hunger.
Every student in the district will be able to eat breakfast and lunch for free at school, regardless of household income or other qualifiers.
The opportunity comes through a new government program to "improve access to free school meals for high-poverty schools," according to the Colorado Department of Education.
"We're going to give it a try. We believe it is a good offering to our students - breakfast and lunch at no charge," said Tammy Brunnar, supervisor of nutrition services for Harrison D-2.
The district just barely met the requirements. To participate, districts or individual schools must have at least 40 percent of a "student identifier" formula that counts students who are homeless, migrant youth, foster children, Head Start enrollees or those whose families receive food stamps or other federal assistance. Harrison's count: 40.03 percent.
The Community Eligibility Provision is based on policy requirements of the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. It essentially will replace the federal free and reduced lunch program within D-2 when the next school year begins, Brunnar said.
While no conditions are placed on the students who take advantage of the service, parents will have to fill out paperwork to register their kids for the free meals.
But "this isn't about qualifying," Brunnar said. "Studies show children who are hungry don't perform as well in school.
"We're really hoping to create a better learning environment for our students."
Harrison normally has a high percentage of students who receive free and reduced meals.
Of this school year's 11,179 students, the average daily participation for free or reduced breakfast is 29 percent and for lunch, 61 percent.
Brunnar said with the new free meals program that's not restricted by eligibility, the district expects to see the numbers jump by an additional 15 percent for breakfast and 50 percent for lunch. If the projections are on track, more than 90 percent of students will eat lunch for free at school in the 2014-15 academic year.
The estimated cost per plate for breakfast will be $1.42 and for lunch $2.25, Brunnar said. The cost will be picked up by the CDE.
The program seems like a good idea, said Shannon Gonzalez, the mother of a kindergartner, a first-grader and a sixth-grader who attend schools in D-2. Her children qualify for reduced lunch prices.
"It sounds like an all-around fantastic deal," she said. "Some parents don't qualify for the free and reduced programs but need them."
Although her children haven't eaten school-provided breakfast in the past, they may join the program next year, said Gonzalez, who also works part time in the kitchen at a D-2 elementary school.
"I've wanted to get a full-time job, and this might be the thing that helps me do that, knowing my kids could get free breakfast at school," she said.
The food is good, too, Gonzalez said, with plenty of fruits and vegetables and other nutritious fare that follow U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for healthy school meals.
Food service workers will be gearing up to feed the extra mouths, Brunnar said.
"Hopefully, we'll be serving a lot more students, but that's a good thing, not a bad thing," she said.
In December, D-2 began offering dinner to students who stay for after-school activities, but that meal is not included in the new free meals program.