BOSTON — Some students toted lunchboxes to the first day of school in Boston this week, but district administrators are expecting that could become a more unusual sight as parents learn about a federal program that is providing all public-school students in the city with free breakfast and lunch.
The nation’s oldest school system has joined a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that has spread to 10 states and the District of Columbia that offers students two free meals every school day, whether or not their families can afford them.
“It’s one less weight and one less burden for parents,” said Joshua Rivera, whose son is a second-grader at the Maurice J. Tobin School in Boston’s Roxbury section.
Officials say that serving more children saves them money.
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The program, the Community Eligibility Option, is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that authorized $4.5 billion in new program funding.
For schools to qualify, federal officials said, more than 40 percent of students have to be getting food stamps or aid through certain other federal assistance programs.
Besides easing hunger, school officials said, the program helps erase a stigma that plagued some students from poor families.
Boston joins schools in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Illinois, West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida and Washington, D.C., in the program that will be available across the country starting in the 2014-15 school year.
Efrain Toledano, principal of the Tobin School, said he expects the program will cut down on potential disruptions at the K-8 school by easing hunger pangs that could be linked to classroom misbehavior.
“We know that calm stomachs means calm students who are ready to learn in classrooms,” he said.
Michael Peck, director of Food and Nutrition Services for Boston Public Schools, said 76 percent of students already had qualified for free or reduced-price meals.
The program eliminates bureaucratic costs and expenses associated with handling cafeteria cash, officials said.
Jim Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, noted the program saves schools money because it’s less expensive to feed more students than to do paperwork for children who qualify for free or reduced price meals.
In Boston, officials also won’t have to hire couriers to drop off and pick up applications at the city’s 127 schools, Peck said. They also may be able to cancel armored-car pickups of cafeteria money.
An Atlanta Public Schools spokeswoman said students at 58 of the city’s 100 public schools started getting free breakfast and lunch this year under the program. A spokeswoman for District of Columbia Public Schools said 76 out of 111 district schools are part of the program, which started there in the last school year.
Detroit Public Schools joined the federal program during the 2011-12 school year.
In western Michigan, an administrator with Grand Rapids Public Schools said the district has been serving free breakfast and lunch for its 17,000 students since the 2012-13 school year started.
Paul Baumgartner, nutrition-service director, said that breakfast counts skyrocketed after the program began and that the program saves families the hassle of filling out applications. “The rationale is we’ve got these communities that have demonstrated severe need,” he said. “Why don’t we see if we can reduce some of these barriers?”