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NIAGARA FALLS – It turns out there is such a thing as a free lunch.

And a free breakfast, too.

They are served every school day to every student in seven of the city’s public school buildings under a new federal program based on the high level of poverty in Niagara Falls.

“This really is about kids that need to be fed,” School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco told members of the School Board.

Timothy J. Hyland, the school district’s business administrator, explained that “every student in the schools that qualify is eligible now for free meals under a new option in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program.” The Niagara Falls public schools joined this new option earlier in this school year.

“There no longer is any distinction between those who get free meals, those who get reduced-price meals and those who pay full price; they all are free in the schools that qualify,” Hyland said. Previously, qualification for free school meals or for reduced-price meals was based on household income, and families had to apply for them.

Under the new USDA rules, families no longer have to apply, because everybody in the affected schools qualifies regardless of their income. In the cafeteria checkout lines, there is no distinction among students; everybody gets a free meal.

One of the rules for the universal free meals is that at least 40 percent of the school’s students must qualify for free breakfasts and lunches under the long-existing school lunch program financed by the federal government.

Then a formula is used to calculate how much money each school district will receive if it decides to extend free meals to all students in the qualifying schools.

Bianco, the superintendent, said “seven of our schools qualify for free meals for everybody, and two others – including Niagara Falls High School – are very close to qualifying. About 66 percent of our students get free or reduced-price lunches.”

Free meals currently are being served at Harry F. Abate, Cataract, Hyde Park and Niagara Street Elementary schools, Kalfas Magnet School, and LaSalle and Gaskill Preparatory schools.

Schools not eligible for the program this year are Geraldine J. Mann, Maple Avenue and 79th Street Elementary schools and Niagara Falls High School. Some students in those schools qualify for free meals, some for reduced-price meals, and some pay full price.

Hyland gave a 15-minute presentation on the free breakfast and lunch program at the Feb. 7 meeting of the School Board.

Using Niagara Street School, the city’s largest at the elementary level, as an example, the business administrator said 542 of its 641 students qualified for free or reduced-price meals under the previous program.

Now, all of them get free meals.

Student nutrition is a major aspect of the educational program here, and the School Board’s wellness policy of the last several years currently is under review for a possible update.

The policy says, in part, that the school district “supports healthy eating” and that school meals must “offer a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables,” serve only low-fat (1 percent) and fat-free milk, and ensure that some of the served grains are whole grain.

The policy also sets maximum standards for fat, sodium and sugar in school meals and specifies a choice of at least two fruit and/or nonfried vegetables.

It allows water or seltzer without added caloric sweeteners, fruit and vegetable juices and fruit-based drinks that contain at least 25 percent fruit juice and do not have additional caloric sweeteners. It does not allow soft drinks that contain caloric sweeteners, sports drinks, iced tea, fruit-based drinks that contain less than 25 percent real fruit juice or that have additional caloric sweeteners; and beverages containing caffeine except for low-fat or fat-free chocolate milk that have trivial amounts of caffeine.

Portion sizes also are limited.

The district has an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Buffalo that provides for the sale of beverages in vending machines and on school property, but the wellness policy prohibits the sale of Coke itself and other “sodas” because they do not meet the policy standards. A typical 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola contains 65 grams of sugar, which disqualifies it under the policy.

In exchange for the exclusive “pouring rights,” Coca-Cola is paying the district $9,000 this year in addition to donating $3,000 worth of its products every year during its five-year contract and paying a commission on its vending machine sales. The company also provides recycling containers for the empty bottles.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com