Skip to main content

Podcast: The Hunger Free Schools Act

In this podcast we will discuss a pending piece of legislation that can potentially reduce child hunger in the country. I’m Michelle Bazie and I’m joined by Senior Policy Analyst for Food Assistance, Zoë Neuberger.

1. Zoë, the legislation is called the Hunger Free Schools Act. Would you explain what it would do?

The Hunger Free Schools Act would help ensure that low-income children get the free school meals for which they are eligible, with a minimum of paperwork for parents and schools. Right now, many parents who have already gone through a rigorous screening process to participate in the Food Stamp or Medicaid program have to fill out a separate application to get free school meals for their children. That doesn’t make sense. It’s a waste of time for parents and schools. We know that these families need help getting enough nutritious food and they have already proven to another program that they qualify for benefits. The Hunger Free Schools Act would automatically connect children who are already getting other benefits to free school meals and it would help schools that serve predominantly low-income children offer free meals to all students.

2. Can you explain how the bill would help schools in high-poverty communities?

It would create a new option for schools, known as community eligibility. This option would allow schools that serve very high poverty areas to serve meals free to all children. Rather than have staff at these schools spend their time searching for the few children who can afford to pay, they could focus their energy on providing healthier meals or on educating children. And of course, the goal is simple: to eliminate hunger as a barrier to learning in schools that serve high-poverty communities.

3. How many schools would qualify to serve free meals under this new system?

Schools could only qualify for the option if they effectively enroll a large share of the children eligible for food stamps. Nationwide, we believe that about 10,000 schools -- which serve nearly one in ten of the students in the country, might be able to take this option. These are schools with very high shares of low-income children. I’m talking about schools where 80 or 90 percent of the students already qualify for free- or reduced-priced meals.

4. Stepping back from this new option, can you explain how the enrollment system works now?

Most children are enrolled for free or reduced priced meals when their parents submit an application at the start of the school year. But children who live in households that receive food stamp benefits are already eligible for free school meals. In fact, school districts are required to work with the Food Stamp Program to automatically enroll these children. This automatic enrollment process is known as “direct certification.”

5. So how will the Hunger Free Schools Act simplify this process?

It improves efficiency in two ways. First: it prevents parents of low-income children from filling out duplicative, detailed paperwork. Second: it prevents schools from processing unnecessary paperwork. The Act includes provisions to improve states’ performance on directly certifying children who are getting food stamp benefits. It would also expand direct certification to reach many more low-income children by requiring states to use data from the Medicaid program to automatically enroll eligible children.

6. You mentioned many more children. How many more?

We actually estimate that 2 million low-income children could be automatically enrolled for free meals for the first time by using Medicaid data.

7. When will the provisions in the Hunger Free Schools Act go into effect?

The Hunger Free Schools Act is a bill that we would like to see incorporated into comprehensive legislation reauthorizing – or extending -- the child nutrition programs. I’ll actually be testifying before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday, March 4th on the reauthorization.

8. So what’s the bottom line?

We hope that Congress will see the need for the changes in the Hunger Free Schools Act and make it easier to get free school meals to needy children. Simply put, no vulnerable child should miss out on healthy meals because of red tape.

Thanks for joining me, Zoë.

For more information on food assistance policies, you can go to the Center’s website at