Community Eligibility: An Important New Tool to Reduce Childhood Hunger
In a blog post on TalkPoverty.org, CBPP President Robert Greenstein explains that community eligibility, through which schools in high-poverty areas can provide students with free meals, is an important new tool that schools can use to reduce childhood hunger.
The option has been phasing in since 2011, and now, for the first time, will become available nationwide for the 2014-2015 school year. The lists of eligible schools in all states are available here. But schools have only until June 30 to opt in, so school districts need to move quickly to embrace this opportunity.
Community eligibility has led to a striking increase in the number of children in high-poverty areas eating school breakfast and lunch. In schools in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan that have used the option for two years, lunch participation rose by 13 percent and breakfast participation rose by 25 percent, with 29,000 more low-income children eating breakfast daily.
As he explains in his post, this model of connecting low-income children to assistance is effective for several reasons:
It’s targeted. School meals have always been available free of charge to low-income children, but community eligibility expands the school meals programs’ reach in communities with high concentrations of poverty. Over 80 percent of the students participating in community eligibility schools in its first two years had been approved for free or reduced-price meals the prior year.
It’s administratively simple. Community eligibility not only connects more low-income children to nutritious food, but also cuts red tape. Families don’t have to complete applications or provide information on their income, and schools don’t have to process those applications or have a cashier figure out whether to provide a free or reduced-price meal every time a child goes through the lunch line. A related benefit is that students can eat in the cafeteria without worrying about any stigma from receiving a free meal.
Moreover, schools that have adopted community eligibility 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.
It promotes opportunity. Eating breakfast and lunch helps children start the school day ready to learn and remain focused throughout the day. Schools that have taken steps to increase school breakfast participation, for example, report that discipline referrals and behavior problems went down and student attentiveness and attendance went up.
It’s time to take a practical next step, Greenstein says: encourage the schools and districts that are eligible for community eligibility to take the option.