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Community Eligibility Expands Reach of School Meals Program

June 12, 2012 at 11:40 AM

The Center, in conjunction with the Food Research and Action Center, has collected new data that show the early success of “community eligibility” — the provision in the 2010 child nutrition reauthorization law that allows schools or school districts where most students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all children.  For the 2011-2012 school year, the option has been available in three states that the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) selected — Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan.

School districts receive federal reimbursements based on an estimate of how many children would qualify for free or reduced-price meals if they took applications under the standard rules.  The program enables the schools to focus on feeding children rather than processing paperwork — and, in turn, to serve more low-income children through the school meals program, which improves kids’ diets and readiness to learn.

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Through interviews and surveys, we gathered data about the school districts that participated in community eligibility this year (USDA is also conducting its own evaluation).

The early results are promising:

  • Across Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan, 665 schools are now community eligibility schools, serving more than 280,000 students, with additional schools expected to join in the coming year.  More than three-quarters of students at these schools were approved for free or reduced-price meals for the 2010-2011 school year, prior to community eligibility’s start.
  • Across all three states, these schools served roughly one in ten of the children who were approved for a free or reduced-price meal during the 2010-2011 school year.  In Michigan, nearly one in five children who was approved for a free or reduced-price meal last year attended a school that is now participating in community eligibility.
  • Unsurprisingly, more children ate at school once the meals were free for all students.  In community eligibility schools, average daily lunch participation rose from 72 percent in October 2010 to 78 percent in October 2011, while average daily breakfast participation rose from 48 percent to 57 percent over the same period.  Kentucky particularly stands out for an increase in breakfast participation, jumping from 49 percent in October 2010 to 70 percent in October 2011, reflecting more widespread availability of breakfast in the classroom.
  • Every participating school district that we spoke with would recommend the option to other districts serving a comparably poor student body.  Although participating schools receive the federal free meal subsidy for only a portion of meals, school districts report that administrative savings make up for the meal charges they must forgo, and parents and staff have reacted positively to the program.


USDA will add states to the program each year until the 2014-2015 school year, when the option will be available to any school district that meets the criteria; it’s adding the District of Columbia, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia for the 2012-2013 year.  Across these states, we estimate that roughly 1,600 schools serving about 700,000 children approved for free or reduced-price meals this year — about one in three students receiving free or reduced-price meals in those states — could participate.  USDA, together with Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan, has created resources that will help districts in the new states understand and implement community eligibility.

In 2010, nearly 8.5 million children lived in households in which a child lacked access to adequate food at some point because the family didn’t have enough money for groceries. No vulnerable child should miss out on healthy meals because of red tape. The states that will offer community eligibility next year have an important opportunity to make a dent in children’s struggles against hunger.


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