Young Niles students get free meals

NILES — For the first time in its history, the Niles City School District is providing free breakfasts and lunches to every student in kindergarten to fifth grade at the Niles Primary and Niles Intermediate school buildings.

Holly Hanni, food service director for Niles schools and a contracted provider with the Nutrition Group, said the new free meals option started in August as part of the Community Eligibility Provision through the National School Lunch Program that allows students to have free meals without having to pay a fee or submit an application.

”I applied last year because our numbers in the district showed we are in a high poverty area and there is a need. A high percentage of the families in Niles are getting benefits from the state, which is how we became CEP certified. We were able to show there was a severe need to get this program implemented to make sure the children were eating,” Hanni said, noting the elementary school had a high number of free and reduced meal applications.

Hanni filled out the needed paperwork and applications for more than 600 children at Niles Primary School and more than 500 at Niles Intermediate.

The program is for four years through 2021 and if approved next year, it will be extended to 2022.

She said by next year, they are anticipating the entire district — from kindergarten to 12th grade — will receive free meals based on the number of middle and high school free and reduced lunch applications, but it’s not official.

Hanni said the only time a child would pay is for extra items and a la carte items not part of the full meal tray, such as wanting an extra carton of milk.

”More students have been trying the cafeteria food, which includes two to three different types of fresh fruits and vegetables each day,” Hanni said.

While little to no money is collected from students, they still scan their identification pin card so the cafeteria can keep count of total students eating which is needed for the district to get funding from the state.

Hanni said there has been an increase in students eating breakfast at the primary school. She said 113 ate breakfast last school year and this year, about 320 students are doing so.

Niles Intermediate Principal Christopher Staph said every child can come to school and get a breakfast, with 197 students eating breakfast daily.

”They are ready to go for the day. Before, too many students came to school hungry, which was a concern. Now they are being fed,” he said.

”Statistics show that students who have eaten well excel in their studies,” Board of Education President Susan Longacre said.