HELENA, Mont. — About 86 schools in Montana will serve free meals to all their students starting this year under a newly-expanded program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The community eligibility provision of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 allows a school to offer free breakfast and lunch to all their students if at least 40 percent of the students are eligible for free meals through certified participation in another assistance program. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) are all qualifying programs.

Of 117 schools in Montana that meet the criteria, 86 so far have said they'll participate in the program, according to Denise Juneau, Montana superintendent of public instruction.

"It's a big move and I think a very positive one for providing access to food for students," Juneau said, adding that the free meals will be available to more than 15,000 students in the participating schools. "From the pilot schools we've learned that it helps increase attendance and reduce disciplinary problems. When those things happen you have better learning in the classroom."

Already implemented in 11 states, the program is expanding to all 50 for this school year.

Because the eligibility for all students is determined by the percentage of kids already enrolled in other assistance programs, the need for applications, approvals and lunch money collection is eliminated in this program. That appeals to school administrators and should also appeal to parents, Juneau said.

"Parents won't have to fill out forms for that purpose," she said. "It's great for high school and middle school in reducing the stigma because everyone in these schools will receive free meals."

Although many Montana schools have said yes to the program, participation might not be the best choice for all schools, Juneau said. Federal reimbursement to schools for the program is based on a formula, and not all schools will be 100 percent reimbursed. Generally, the more kids in a school who are eligible for free meals, the less the school has to pay for the program.

Ronan School District Superintendent Andy Holmlund said after crunching numbers for months, administrators decided recently that three of their schools will participate in the program. But with one of the schools at the lower end of eligibility, it won't receive 100 percent reimbursement.

"We took the time to make sure we could sort it out and not take money away from teachers, staff and paraprofessionals," he said.

The school district will have to cover a $5,000 gap in funding, which Holmlund said will come from the district's general fund. He thinks it will be worth the cost.

"I think kids are going to win and that's the business we're in," he said.

Holmlund said he received some "pretty emotional responses" from financially-struggling parents after the news of the program spread.

Linda Smith has two children in Ronan schools who already qualify for free breakfast and lunch. She said when she heard all the students would receive free meals she felt relieved.

"I was so happy just for everybody because I know how much people struggle to pay for the lunches and breakfasts at school," Smith said. "I was also shocked learning I didn't have to do the paperwork."

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Kevin Concannon, USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services under secretary, said it's important for schools to make those calculations and that although the deadline to join the program is Aug. 31, he'd be open to bringing other schools into the program after that date.

Concannon said he couldn't estimate what the program will cost until after the Aug. 31 deadline when they'll have a better count of the number of schools participating. The money will come from the Healthy Hunger-Free Kid Act's child nutrition program, which funds all school meals programs at about $16 billion per year.

"This is really one of most exciting new options out there that will be available to millions of students," Concannon said.