In St. Lucie schools, there really IS such a thing as a free lunch

Students at 16 St. Lucie County schools will be able to eat not just breakfast for free, but also lunch – no catch, no application. The School District announced the decision just as the summer break was winding down and schools are getting ready for the return of thousands of students.

The schools were selected based on the sizable student population that already qualifies for free and reduced lunches. Each has a student population of more than 40 percent that directly qualifies for the program due to their families receiving other government assistance, such as food stamps.

Child Nutrition Services Program Manager Deborah Wuest explained that the food services budget is separate from that of the general budget for the School District, which allows her flexibility in determining what programs can be offered. Funded through the federal government, Wuest said she could open up free meals at the 16 schools based on community need.

“One of the healthiest meals the kids can receive is at school,” she said. Meals served at schools are reviewed and identified as healthy based on the number of calories they provide, the amount of protein, fat and carbohydrates they provide, as well as the vitamins offered.

Students select an entrée and can choose as many as three fruits and vegetables, a grain and a milk.

Wuest said that many of the students who avail themselves of the program might not otherwise get anything to eat. For some, she said, the only food they eat is what they can get at school.

While students attending non-participating schools won’t automatically receive lunch for free, their families can apply for assistance and, if approved, could get lunch either for free or at a reduced price.

Regardless of the school, however, all students district-wide can receive breakfast for free.

“There is a need,” Wuest said of providing breakfast to all students.

“It’s such an important meal of the day,” she said, explaining that too often students don’t get breakfast at home.

The cost of the free breakfast is absorbed in the food services budget, Wuest said.

The School District has more than 39,000 students, of which 76 percent qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, according to Wuest.

Parents or guardians who would like to apply for the free and reduced lunch program – and don’t have students attending one of the participating schools – are encouraged to fill out an online application found on the School District’s web site, www.stlucieschools.org. Click on “Meal Application” and follow the prompts.

“Get the application in,” Wuest said. “It’s so important.”

The District will review each application and has 10 days from submittal to render a decision. Decisions are usually issued sooner.

Paper applications, too, could be filled out on the first day of school, according to Wuest, but they take longer to be review.

Students who received a benefit last year will be able to carry that benefit forward during the first 30 days of school to give families time enough to go through the application process.

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