The child nutrition bill that President Obama signed this morning includes an important new option that will allow thousands of schools in high-poverty areas to focus on feeding children rather than processing paperwork. This is a terrific opportunity for states to serve more low-income children through the school meals program.
Known as “community eligibility,” the option will allow schools or school districts where the vast majority of the students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all children. Families won’t have to complete applications providing detailed information on their income. And schools won’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.
The amount of a school’s federal reimbursement will be based on the share of its students receiving other public benefits, such as food stamps. Thus, the option has the added benefit of giving states and school districts an incentive to connect poor children to those other critical assistance programs, since that will qualify the school for more federal funds.
Students in community eligibility schools will be able to eat in the cafeteria without worrying about any stigma from receiving a free meal, and their school will be able to devote its limited resources to providing nutritious meals and improving educational services.
We estimate that up to 10,000 schools serving the country’s poorest neighborhoods will ultimately be able to participate. USDA will make the option available in three states for the 2011-2012 school year and will add more states each year.
In 2009, nearly 9 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. Congress and the President just took an important step toward making that goal a reality.