Free lunch for all in Chicago Public Schools starts in September

CPS officials say federal program will save district money

July 3, 2014

(WBEZ/Monica Eng)
Lunches like this one will be offered free to all Chicago Public School students starting in September. The free lunches are part of a federal program to reduce paperwork for large low-income districts.

Lunch money may be a thing of the past at Chicago Public Schools.

Under a relatively new program called the Community Eligibility Option (CEO) all school meals will be free starting in September 2014, the district confirmed to WBEZ Thursday.

Although the CPS initially rejected the program in 2011, it had expanded it to 400 schools by last fall.

This September, however, will be the first time "well-off" schools join the program as well. Entirely free meals reduce the labor of cash collection and tracking which students have to pay full and reduced prices for their food. This tiered system (with incentives for schools reporting higher poverty levels) led to fraud among CPS employees in the past.

“This transition will also allow us to improve quality of food and infrastructure in our lunchrooms, allowing us to redirect the dollars we no longer have to subsidize back to the classroom,” the district said in an email to WBEZ Thursday.

Under the CEO program, the federal government reimburses the district based on its percentage of low-income students, and CPS officials say that the continued rollout of the program has already meant savings.

“Our predominantly high [low-income] population—nearly 90 percent—allows us to meet the threshold to ensure that reimbursement rates won’t cost the district revenue,” a CPS spokeswoman said in the email . “In FY14, due to our expanded participation in the Community Eligibility Option (CEO) program (from 200 to 400 schools this year), we no longer had to subsidize the program with general fund dollars. We've also received a larger blended reimbursement this year of $2.93, up from $2.76 last year.”

CPS representatives also says a swipe card payment system will be rolled out for all students in the district by the end of 2014.