Senior Policy Analyst
With nearly 16 million children in households that have trouble affording enough nutritious food at some point during the year, several states are taking advantage of a new federal option to reduce hunger and streamline their school meal programs, as a major new report from CBPP and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) explains. More schools should think about this new option, which will become available to qualifying school districts nationwide for the next school year.
Those 16 million children are a powerful reminder of why we must make sure that every child who needs school meals gets them.
The new option, known as community eligibility, allows schools or school districts where the vast majority of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all children.
Families don’t have to complete applications and provide detailed information on their income. 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. And students can eat in the cafeteria without worrying about any stigma from receiving a free meal.
Over the past two years, seven states have utilized community eligibility in more than 2,200 high-poverty schools serving nearly 1 million children (see graph).
The first three states to adopt the option — Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan — have seen striking success. The average number of children in these states eating school lunch daily rose by 23,000 (or 13 percent), while the average number of children eating school breakfast daily rose by 29,000 (or 25 percent). Overall, school meal participation is far higher in schools that offer community eligibility.
The report details the experiences of community eligibility schools, provides resources, and outlines best practices that can help more schools implement the option.
No vulnerable child should miss out on healthy meals because of red tape. By adopting community eligibility, schools can take an important step toward making that goal a reality.