SOUTH BEND -

A federal program going nationwide in August means 8,000 South Bend Community School Corporation students will get free breakfast and lunch next school year. It’s part of a USDA program called Community Eligibility Provision and many area schools qualify for it, but are still assessing whether it will work for them financially.

Benton Harbor’s been part of the CEP pilot program for the last 3 years. All students in the Benton Harbor school district receive free breakfast and lunch.

The CEP is based on formulas. If at least 40 percent of students at one school qualify for free meals, students in the entire school corporation then qualify for free breakfast and lunch.

At Madison Primary Center in South Bend, breakfast and lunch are considered two of the most important subjects.

“We’re a high poverty school,” said principal Deb Martin. “Our kids come in for breakfast, a lot of times they'll eat off the share tray too because they're so hungry.”

Still, Martin said she sees hungry kids every day.

“Everyone’s needs are not always met,” she added.

All students at Madison already get free breakfast and lunch because of the school’s poverty numbers. But starting next school year, all 19 of the corporation’s primary centers as well as Studebaker Elementary are doing the same. The new program also means families won’t have to fill out applications or paperwork.

“This is a good thing,” said Victoria Moore, SBCSC Director of Food & Nutrition.

The government should reimburse about 90 percent of the cost of the program but the corporation's responsible for fronting the other 10 percent, Moore added. Those costs should be covered through sales on the a la carte menu, catering services and the sale of food to teachers, she said.

“By being able to have both breakfast and lunch at school daily, at no charge, I think it takes a huge lift off the households, knowing ‘my kid is going to have food today,’” Moore said.

She’s hopeful the corporation will be able to include intermediate schools in the free lunch and breakfast program next year.

Many other local school corporations are still weighing options when it comes to the new program. The School City of Mishawaka, for example, has schools that are eligible for free lunch and breakfast but Food Service Coordinator Peggy Baer told WSBT the corporation doesn’t want to lose money.

Elkhart Community Schools is in the same boat, said spokesman Doug Thorne.

The higher the number of kids qualifying for free meals, the more reimbursement money the corporation gets from the government. Lower percentages of qualifying students means the district has to pay more.

Benton Harbor does not pay anything because the government reimburses 100 percent of its free lunch and breakfast costs.