SAN ANTONIO — All North East Independent School District students can eat lunch free during the coming school year.
San Antonio's second-largest district is one of many school systems that's opted into a federal expansion of the school lunch program. Now all students can eat meals free, regardless of how much money their parents earn.
The expansion is part of President Joe Biden's push to eliminate child poverty during the pandemic. In prior years, free or reduced-cost lunches were only available to low-income children.
"We know a lot of families have had changes in their income during the pandemic," NEISD Executive Director of School Nutrition Sharon Glosson said. "To take away one worry from them... was really important."
Glosson says the expansion will cut overhead and administrative hours, since school employees will not need to process paperwork and applications.
Most important, the broader program should encourage more low-income families to participate. Every year, thousands of eligible American families do not sign up their children for free lunches.
"Sometimes, it's a lack of knowledge that the benefit is available," Glosson said. "Maybe the parent has a low literacy level, maybe there's other issues going on in the house."
She added that offering meals to all students will spare some children the embarrassment of claiming an underwritten lunch.
"When you can treat everybody the same, when there's no awareness of whose meals are underwritten and whose are not, it makes everybody equal," San Antonio Food Bank president Eric Cooper said. "At the end of the day, kids can't learn if they're hungry."
Cooper said the expanded program should ease pressure on food banks across the country.
In San Antonio, about 90,000 people rely on the food bank for meals each week, down from 120,000 during the height of the pandemic. Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, about 60,000 people sought meals at the food bank each week.
"I think it's some relief... knowing that we're not alone in the fight against hunger," Cooper said.
The federal government will also offer more money to schools so they can offer healthier options.
"There's been some inflation and the price of food has increased," Cooper said. "Sometimes some of the healthier foods have been priced off the menu. These extra dollars will help schools acquire the best food possible to nourish kids."
Students who still want to pack a lunch can also grab food from the lunch line to supplement their meals. Glosson said research indicates school-provided meals are typically more nutritious than meals from home.
"As a student, all you have to worry about is picking out the great food that you want to eat," she said, adding that the program will promote social distancing by moving children through lunch lines faster.
"I don't think people fully appreciate the amount of meals that are provided through schools," Cooper said. "When kids are congregated in a cafeteria, it's the most efficient, easy way to nourish a child."
The expansion is not permanent, though lawmakers are pushing to extend universal free lunches beyond the end of the coming school year.
NEISD says it needs more lunch servers to accommodate increasing demand. Interested workers can apply at NEISD.NET or by calling (210) 356-9103.
Families struggling with food insecurity can call the food bank at (210) 431-8326 or visit SAFoodBank.org.
Comal ISD and SAISD already began offering free lunches to students with no applications required. Edgewood ISD also reached out to KENS 5 to confirm that district will be offering free meals as well.
Northside ISD said it will also offer "traditional, in-building breakfast and lunch at no cost for NISD enrolled students."
The district released a statement that said: "While no application or eligibility determination process is required for your student to receive free meals this school year, the income eligibility requirement will likely resume in the 2022-2023 school year. For more information on the free or reduced-price meal applications, call (210) 397-4517 or email@example.com."