Starting Tuesday, all students in the Dallas Independent School District will be able to get free breakfast and lunch, regardless of family income.
Nearly 90 percent of the students in the district qualify for free or reduced meals, although in many districts paperwork can be a hurdle to actually getting enrolled and many other students fall just outside the eligibility limits. A family previously had to earn less than $30,615 a year to qualify.
The district made the move anticipating that it will end up saving it money in the long run. As more students qualified for the subsidized breakfast and lunch programs, the district had to hire more workers to keep up with the paperwork while sending out more information and making more calls to families. All of that cost it about $300,000 a year.
The program will of course also save families money. While there are not yet estimates for people living in Dallas, Boston made the same move in September and predicted that families who hadn’t previously qualified for free breakfast and lunch would save $230 per child a year for the former and $405 to $455 for the latter.
Dallas and Boston are the latest to participate in a national program called “Community Eligibility Option” that waives meal fees for all students. Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, and parts of New York City are also implementing it. Yet across the country just half of the students who are eligible for free breakfast receive it.
The ability to opt into free meals for all students comes at a time when many are going hungry. All told, more than one in five children lack steady access to food, and that problem shows up at school. Three-quarters of the country’s teachers say they have students who routinely come to class hungry. Half of them say hunger is a serious problem in their classrooms.
Yet hunger has a huge impact on students’ academics. Students who struggle with hunger fall quickly behind their classmates. If 70 percent of the children who are eligible for free breakfasts actually received them, 3.2 million students would achieve higher test scores, there would be 4.8 million fewer absences, and 807,000 more students would graduate high school. Hunger also leaves them far more susceptible to mental illness, a more significant factor that poverty or the education level of their families.