Students in the Middletown School District won’t need to worry about forgetting their lunch money in the upcoming school year, or even having lunch money at all.

They’re joining thousands of other students in the region who know that there is such a thing as free lunch, and free breakfast, at districts that provide meals for every student regardless of family income.

The free breakfasts and lunches are provided through the Community Eligibility Provision, a need-based federal program administered by the state Department of Education. In the 2016-2017 school year, 131 districts in New York participated in the program, reaching more than 317,000 students.

To qualify for the program, a district must show that at least 40 percent of its students are Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, Medicaid recipients, homeless, foster children or migrant youth. Under U.S. Code Title 20, a migrant youth is a child whose parent or guardian is a migratory farm worker, dairy worker or fisher who moved between districts in the past 36 months to find work.

In Middletown, more than 75 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch in the 2016-2017 school year, according to Debra Donleavy, the director of food and nutrition services. The district served almost 809,000 lunches in 2016-17, but in the coming school year, the number is expected to jump to more than 1 million, Donleavy said. The district also anticipates growth in its breakfast program.

Donleavy hopes the free meals will have a domino effect, increasing student health and achievement. Paying attention in class isn’t the first priority for students who are hungry.

“We are expecting to have higher attendance,” she said. “We’re anticipating an overall more cohesive, happy place to learn because the common stress of ‘Where is my next meal coming from?’ will be avoided.”

In previous years, the district ran an online sale system with students using ID codes to pay, meaning there was rarely cash exchanged in the lunch room. This prevented other students from noticing which children paid less or not at all, according to Donleavy.

If a student’s account balance ran low, cafeteria employees contacted parents to discuss unpaid charges.

Newburgh School District realizes benefits

The benefits of the program have already been realized in the Newburgh School District, where breakfast and lunch were universally free beginning in the 2016-17 school year, according to Caitlin Lazarski, the district’s food services director.

The district served 1.2 million breakfasts and 1.3 million lunches last year and received $6.7 million in federal and state reimbursement.

The district saw improvements in attendance and a reduction in tardiness, nurse visits and behavioral issues, Lazarski said.

Mirroring Middletown’s approach, the district always provided a meal to students regardless of ability to pay, Lazarski said.

“We were not a district that was shaming,” she said. “We were continuing to give the students the meal. We don’t want to waste food, and we’re not going to humiliate a child.”

The program has also benefited children whose families didn’t quite qualify for free or reduced-price meals and has saved families money, Lazarski said.

“When people are struggling or are food-insecure, that little bit of money really does help out in the long run,” she said.

The Fallsburg School District will start its fourth year of providing free breakfasts and lunches this fall, according to Superintendent Ivan Katz. In 2016-2017, the district provided almost 104,000 breakfasts and more than 176,00 lunches, receiving $930,270 in reimbursements.

The program has eliminated any potential stigma from peers knowing which students qualify for free and reduced lunch, Katz said.

“It’s allowed all students to be the same, which I think is very powerful,” he said.