In about 10,000 schools around the country, at least four-fifths of the children are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Wouldn’t it make sense to allow those schools to serve free meals to all of their students without having to use scarce resources to weed out the few children who don’t qualify?
The Senate Agriculture Committee incorporated that improvement, part of the Hunger Free Schools Act, into the bill it passed last month to renew the federal child nutrition programs.
The Hunger Free Schools Act would also help poor children receive free meals no matter where they attend school. Schools would use family income data that Medicaid has already collected and verified to enroll children for free meals automatically if they qualify, no application needed. The Senate bill includes a scaled-back version of this proposal that would allow about one in ten school districts to use Medicaid data. (The Agriculture Department would decide which ones.)
If the final bill allows any district in America to use Medicaid data, districts would be able to enroll about 3 million additional children automatically for free school meals. Roughly one in four of these children now miss out on free meals even though they’re eligible for them; the rest are already getting free meals but would benefit from a simplified enrollment process.
With poverty rising — nearly one in five children were poor in 2008, even before the worst effects of the recession — and unemployment likely to remain high for some time, no vulnerable child should miss out on healthy meals because of red tape.