Breakfast is free to all students in St. Paul’s public schools, and now, thanks to a federal program, lunch won’t cost a thing, either, at most district schools in 2015-16.

A pilot program begun a year ago offering free lunches at eight schools is being expanded to 39 schools this year, said Jean Ronnei, the district’s chief operations officer.

Districtwide, 72 percent of St. Paul students qualified individually for free or reduced-price lunches in 2014-15. But by ensuring everyone who waits in a school lunch line is treated the same, any stigma associated with a free lunch is removed, and participation increases, program advocates say.

At the eight St. Paul schools that piloted the effort a year ago, student participation in lunch programs was 7 percent higher than at other district schools, with 85 percent of students eating lunch compared with 78 percent elsewhere. Breakfast participation was up, too.

To know everyone’s treated the same, and eating for free, “that’s a good thing,” Ronnei told school board members this week.

The Community Eligibility Provision program is available in participation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and allows all schools in low-income areas to serve meals to all students at no cost and to be reimbursed for those meals. In Minnesota, 58 schools participated in 2014-15, with another 330-plus eligible to do so and 130 more nearing the eligibility requirements, according to state Department of Education data.

A USDA blog reported recently that the free-lunch program has contributed significantly to academic success in the Port Huron school district in Michigan.

In St. Paul, a review of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores at the district’s eight participating schools shows that one school — Farnsworth Aerospace Lower and Upper — saw student proficiency increases in both math and reading in 2015. Three schools posted declines in both areas. Results were split at the other four schools.

The Port Huron Schools program has been in place since the 2011-12 school year.

For a list of participating St. Paul schools, go to: