Senior Policy Analyst
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.
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:
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.