STERLING – Free breakfast and lunch will be provided to all Sterling School District students this year, regardless of income.
More than half its students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and with that in mind, the district enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision program, which requires more than 40% of students be using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and/or be on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid.
“We felt like this was an opportunity for us to assist our families and students,” Superintendent Tad Everett said. “We’re proud to be able to partner with the CEP program to offer this to our community and to our students.”
Typically, breakfast cost $1.45 and lunch $2.15 at the four elementary schools. At Challand Middle School and Sterling High School, breakfast cost $1.70 and lunch $2.20.
Assuming each student buys lunch, families who do not quality for free or reduced meals can save $354.75 a year for each elementary student, and $363 for each middle and high school student.
Ala carte items at Challand and the high school are not covered in the free lunches, nor are second meals and additional milk.
Melissa Ryan-Bergstrom, 39, of Sterling has three kids enrolled, and each paid full price last year for lunch. With two boys who ate hot lunch daily, and a daughter who sometimes would bring a sack lunch, it will save the family more than $900 during the school year, plus the cost of the occasional sack lunch.
“The money savings is going to be fantastic,” Ryan-Bergstrom said. “We can put that toward other things, and, as a middle-class family, sometimes those other things get pushed to the side because you have to pay for things like food.”
She noticed that her daughter’s academic performance got better after she started eating breakfast at school. The other children don’t eat breakfast at school, but that may change, and perhaps come at even more of a savings.
“I am a huge advocate for Sterling Public Schools and feel this is another way that the administration shows that they truly care for the students,” she said. “Research shows that a better academic performance also comes with adequate nutrition and regular meals.”
Combating hunger had been Ryan-Bergstrom’s job for nearly 14 years. She helped start summer feeding programs at the Sterling-Rock Falls Family YMCA, and also worked at the Y’s national level to help fight hunger in other states.
“It really shows that the district is putting our students first and doing what’s best for them,” she said.Families will not need to complete an application for the district’s free and reduced lunch program. Any balances remaining in students’ food service accounts can be used for ala carte purchases; or can be moved to fee accounts after checking in with the business office.
Rock Falls District 13, with students in pre-K-8, has been on the CEP program for 2 years now.
It’s been a great help to the district, and it eases any doubt for those families in a donut-hole situation with qualification thresholds, Superintendent Dan Arickx said.
“There are families that don’t quite qualify for free lunch, and it’s difficult for them to consistently pay their bill,” he said. “Not that school lunch is terribly expensive, but it does add up, and as families fall behind a little bit, then it is a big chunk of change and it becomes a problem.”
Lunch payments are digitized at Rock Falls; students have cards scanned and any payment on top of the free meal is debited from a lunch account. That process erased any lunch line stigma created with low-income students, Arickx said.
West Carroll was in the program 4 years with its primary school in Savanna and middle school in Mount Carroll, but only the primary school qualifies this year.
The program has increased the awareness for better breakfasts, Superintendent Julie Katzenberger said.
“You have more kids eating, especially breakfast,” she said. “Breakfast is always one that kids don’t always eat, and it’s good to start off the day right.”
Everett hopes the same happens at Sterling.
“During the winter, cars don’t run as well, you got to put more stuff on and get ready,” he said, “so we believe [having breakfast] will be able to help our families.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Estimated household savings with free meals
Lincoln, Franklin, Jefferson and Washington elementary
Daily breakfast cost: $1.45 – Breakfast savings over 165 days: $239.25
Daily lunch cost: $2.15 – Lunch savings over 165 days: $354.75
Challand Middle School and Sterling High School
Daily breakfast cost: $1.70 – Breakfast savings over 165 days: $280.50
Daily lunch cost: $2.20 – Lunch savings over 165 days: $363