More Americans live in high-poverty neighborhoods than ever before, according to a recent Century Foundation report, and many of them struggle to provide enough healthy food for their children. Community eligibility, an important new feature of the school meals program, can help schools in high-poverty areas meet the food needs of school-aged children by serving free meals to all students. And community eligibility, which is now operating in 11 states, will be available nationwide for the 2014-2015 school year.
A school can qualify for community eligibility if 40 percent of its students are eligible for free meals automatically, because they either have been identified as low income by another program (such as SNAP, formerly food stamps) or are considered at risk of hunger (because they are in foster care, homeless, or migrants). That group represents just some of the children who would be eligible for free or reduced-price meals if they completed an application. Over 80 percent of the students participating in community eligibility in its first two years had been approved for free or reduced-price meals the prior year.
In school districts with high concentrations of poverty, the entire district can qualify for community eligibility. Otherwise, individual schools or groups of schools can qualify.
Roughly 4,000 schools in 11 states have adopted community eligibility as it has phased in since 2011. Because they report that more children eat breakfast and lunch at school as a result, community eligibility is helping to address child hunger in those states. They also report administrative savings from streamlining their meals programs. Those savings, combined with the drop in per-meal costs when more children eat, help to cover the costs of providing meals to more students.
To prepare for the option’s nationwide expansion, states by May 1 will publish lists of schools that qualify for community eligibility; some states have already done so. Then, school districts must decide by June 30 if they want to implement community eligibility in some or all of their qualifying schools.
Growing up in poverty and without reliable access to food can have lasting effects on a child’s health and ability to learn. Community leaders and policymakers from high-poverty areas — regardless of whether they work on hunger issues — have a large stake in encouraging their local schools to take advantage of this powerful new tool against hunger.