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School Districts, Governors Can Use Free Meals to Mitigate Hardship

School districts can offer school meals in low-income communities at no charge to families under the federal community eligibility provision, but they must opt in by August 31. Adopting this simple four-year option would help mitigate not just the short-term effects of COVID-19 and the deep recession but also some of the future effects that may arise with a potentially lagging recovery. That will be especially important for low-income children as well as Black, Latino, Indigenous, and immigrant households, which face disproportionate hardship as the crisis exacerbates harsh educational, employment, housing, and health care inequities.

Community eligibility is simple to administer when school districts have the right data, which governors and education leaders can provide, and it would let schools focus on other areas in which the pandemic has brought considerable complexity. Under the provision, high-poverty schools, groups of schools, or entire districts provide breakfast and lunch at no cost to all students, eliminating the need to process school meal applications. Eligibility for the program and meal reimbursements depend on the share of “identified students” — those automatically enrolled for free school meals because another program like SNAP or foster care identified them as eligible. At least 40 percent of students must fall into one of these categories for schools or districts to qualify.

Usually school districts must rely on data from April 1, but this year they may rely on data from any time between April 1 and June 30. State education and human services officials can conduct the data matching necessary to count all children who were identified students during that time period.

SNAP caseloads rose substantially as the program responded to recession-driven income losses, so more schools now qualify for community eligibility. And more of those that already qualified but hadn’t adopted it will find the option financially viable because their reimbursement rates will be higher. By May, 6 to 7 million more people (17 percent more) were approved for SNAP than in February, based on data available from 43 states. If all age groups grew at the same rate, that would translate into nearly 2 million more school-aged children in SNAP. States’ caseload increases vary substantially, with boosts of at least 20 percent in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, and Ohio.

Under community eligibility’s reimbursement formula, a 17 percent rise in the share of identified students would boost the share of meals reimbursed at the highest (or “free”) rate by 17 percent through the four-year community eligibility cycle. For example, a school where previously half of the students were identified students, with 4 out of 5 meals reimbursed at the free rate, would see that rate rise to more than 9 in 10 meals reimbursed at the free rate. While many school districts can offer community eligibility with a lower share of meals reimbursed at the free rate, they must make up for forgone meal fees with administrative savings and economies of scale. The higher the share of meals reimbursed at the free rate, the more easily they can do that.

With all that school districts are confronting, a new option to consider might seem daunting. But one reason that more than 28,600 schools and nearly 4,700 school districts of all kinds already operate under community eligibility is that it makes running the school meal programs simpler. Plus, helpful resources are available to help school districts. The Food Research & Action Center, for example, has an online tool to help school districts determine how to group schools to maximize federal reimbursements.

For the 2020-2021 school year, community eligibility can make it easier for schools to offer grab-and-go meals for students who are doing distance learning full or part time. And if Congress extends the Pandemic EBT program, which provides grocery benefits to families to replace school meals when school buildings are closed, community eligibility makes it easier to identify which students qualify. Longer term, community eligibility reduces paperwork and the stigma sometimes associated with eating free or reduced-price school meals.

Community eligibility is associated with a range of positive outcomes for students, including better academic performance, fewer student suspensions, and healthier body mass indexes, a growing body of research shows. With all the hard decisions facing state and local education officials as they try to best serve students during this pandemic, an easy one is to adopt community eligibility for all qualifying schools where it’s financially viable.


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