ITHACA, N.Y. — Kids going through the breakfast or lunch lines at Beverly J. Martin and Enfield Elementary schools now only have to think about what food they want, rather than what they can afford. Cost is no longer a part of the equation as meals are now free for everyone.

Beverly J. Martin Elementary and Enfield Elementary now provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students after qualifying for a federal program that pays for the meals. For Beverly J. Martin Principal Susan Eschbach, the change has been seamless. It wasn’t a big to-do. The food is the same. The kids barely noticed, and it’s made things easier for staff who have one less thing to worry about come breakfast and lunch times.

“Everyone just goes through the line and there’s no conversation about whether the bill was paid,” Eschbach said.

The only issue, Eschbach said, is that they still need parents to fill out the free and reduced lunch eligibility paperwork because it’s needed for other programs like tutoring or sports that are based on eligibility for free or reduced lunch. So, for anyone reading, Eschbach encourages parents to still fill in that paperwork even though it’s not necessary for meals anymore.

The federal program is available for schools that meet a certain percentage of students who are eligible to receive free meals based on family income. At Beverly J. Martin, 79 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced meals and at Enfield Elementary, 76 percent are eligible.

Related: Feeding Tompkins Part 7: 20% of Tompkins County kids at risk of hunger, community struggles to feed them

When kids show up to school hungry, they can’t perform well in school, Holly Payne, chair of the Childhood Nutrition Collaborative, said.

Fresh fruit and yogurt available at the end of the lunch line at BJM. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
Fresh fruit and yogurt available at the end of the lunch line at BJM. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Launched in 2015 with funding from the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, the Childhood Nutrition Collaborative is a coalition of nonprofit, school, university and government staff that have a common goal to improve childhood nutrition in Tompkins County. The collaborative has been working for the past year to create a universal breakfast program. The collaborative is “dedicated to the continuous improvement of the Tompkins County food system” and making sure people from pre-birth up to age 24 have access to nourishing food every day, Payne said.

Food insecurity affects as many as 20 percent of children in Tompkins County, according to a recent study by Horn Research on childhood nutrition funded by The Park Foundation. When children have access to healthy food, studies show their academic performance goes up. And on the opposite end, when children are hungry or don’t have access to nutritious foods, they are more likely to struggle in school.

Offering universal school meals has been a goal of the Collaborative and Payne said she hopes the program can expand beyond the two elementary schools.

Beth Krause, director of the Child Nutrition Program at ICSD, said they will look at expanding to other schools when they meet the percentages required for the federal program.

Giving everyone access to breakfast and lunch is just one part of a broader food curriculum in schools, Payne said. She said it’s important that children feel ownership over the food they are eating. “Maybe it’s a taco that has stuff they grew in the garden,” she said.

Access to healthy food has also been improving, with the addition of salad bars in all ICSD cafeterias and changes to the breakfast menu at elementary schools and using products from local farms. At local schools, students have access to healthy snacks with the Fresh Snack Program as part of the Youth Farm Project.

Featured image: Kindergarten students enjoy lunch at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.