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Community Eligibility: Making High-Poverty Schools Hunger Free

Executive Summary

“Community eligibility” is a powerful new tool to ensure that low-income children in high-poverty neighborhoods have access to healthy meals at school.  Established in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the option allows schools in high-poverty areas to offer nutritious meals through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs to all students at no charge.  More than 2,200 high-poverty schools serving nearly 1 million children in seven states — one in ten children across these states — operated under community eligibility during the 2012-2013 school year.

Community eligibility is making a profound difference for students and schools.  Findings from Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan, where school districts first implemented the option in the 2011-2012 school year, show ongoing growth in the number of schools choosing community eligibility and a striking increase in the number of students eating school breakfast and lunch.

  • The number of schools in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan choosing community eligibility nearly doubled in the second year in which the option was available, growing 86.5 percent from 665 schools in the 2011-2012 school year to 1,240 schools in the 2012-2013 school year, and is expected to increase further as more schools learn about its benefits.  
  • In schools in those three states that have participated in community eligibility for two years, lunch participation rose by 13 percent, which resulted in more than 23,000 additional children eating lunch daily, and breakfast participation has increased by 25 percent, which resulted in more than 29,000 additional children eating breakfast daily.

Such increases in participation underscore the impact of community eligibility and its ability to improve low-income children’s access to healthy meals at school, particularly through the School Breakfast Program, which has been underutilized.  Administrators, child nutrition staff, and parents in participating schools, who experience the benefits of community eligibility first hand, have enthusiastically embraced the option.  Community eligibility helps low-income families, high-poverty schools, and the school meals programs by:

  • Improving access to free school meals, so parents can count on their children eating two healthy meals each day at school, helping to stretch families’ limited food budgets; 
  • Eliminating school meal applications, freeing up resources that schools can use to improve the quality of school meals and freeing up time that staff can devote to other important educational functions; and
  • Making school nutrition operations more efficient, which strengthens school nutrition programs financially and enables schools to more easily implement alternative service models such as breakfast in the classroom.

The first two years of community eligibility provide valuable lessons learned, best practices, and user-friendly resource materials.  As schools and states look ahead to the nationwide implementation of community eligibility in school year 2014-2015, the following steps will facilitate a successful transition:  

  • Promote community eligibility and provide multiple opportunities for school districts to learn about it.States, districts, advocates and other stakeholders can work together to publicize the new option.  Effective promotional activities include issuing a press release, offering webinars or conference calls, and posting materials on websites, such as fact sheets, calculators, and sample forms adapted from the excellent materials that participating states already have developed.
  • Improve direct certification systemsand procedures to identify children who are automatically eligible for free school meals, without a paper application, the number of whom is the basis for reimbursements under community eligibility.  Such children include those who are in foster care or Head Start, are homeless, are migrant, or are living in households that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) benefits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) benefits, or Medicaid in areas approved for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Medicaid Direct Certification Demonstration Projects.  These certification improvements will help school districts accurately determine which schools are eligible and can increase their free claiming percentage under community eligibility.
  • Identify and address implications of eliminating school meal applications.  States can set up a work group of relevant staff — such as school nutrition, Title I, assessment, school funding, accountability, and E-rate — to start identifying and addressing any issues that might arise when school meal applications are not collected.
  • Prepare to publish lists of eligible schools.States can establish a process for collecting and compiling data on the percentage of children enrolled at each school who are approved for free meals without an application so they will be ready to publish a statewide list of schools eligible for community eligibility (and those near-eligible) by May 1, 2014 as required.

This report analyzes the scope and impact of community eligibility in the seven states that implemented it in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years.  (Four more states are starting in the 2013-2014 school year.)  It is meant to serve as a guide for states and school districts as the nationwide rollout of community eligibility approaches.  It explains and provides resources related to how community eligibility works, how it helps participating schools and families, how to operate without school meal applications, and how stakeholders can prepare to implement the option when it becomes available in all states for the 2014-2015 school year.