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Podcast: Zoë Neuberger Testimony on the Hunger Free Schools Act

I’m Zoë Neuberger with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and we are a non-profit public policy institute that focuses on how public policy affects low-and-moderate income people.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify. I’m going to focus on the importance of improving access to the Child Nutrition Programs. We really have a terrific opportunity to make it easier for low-income children to get healthy meals, and in light of the recession access to these programs is even more critical. My testimony will focus on two specific proposals that are included in the Hunger Free Schools Act. The first proposal would help high poverty schools. It would allow them to provide all of their students with free school meals without using the standard application process. The second proposal would help low income children get free school meals regardless of where they attend school. But before I get into the specifics of the proposal, let me just say why investments in access to these programs is so very important.

Over the long term, a thriving economy that provides economic security for all is the most effective mechanism to reduce hunger. And even when the economy is in great shape, millions of American children rely upon the federal nutrition programs on a daily basis. In light of the recession, children need these programs even more. The experience of the last two recessions suggests that unemployment and poverty will remain high long after the recovery officially starts. In a recent Gallup poll, nearly 1 in 4 households with children said there were times in the past year when they didn’t have enough money to buy the needed food. As Doctor Chilton spoke to very eloquently, children are especially vulnerable to the affects of recession. Failure to meet their basic needs could undermine their healthy development and impede learning, with potentially lifelong consequences. That’s why it’s critical for Congress to expand access to the children nutrition programs. We hope that a significant share of available resources will be invested in making it easier for children to get the meals to which they’re eligible, offering new meals to eligible children, or expanding eligibility to reach additional low income children.

Now let me explain the first proposal that I mentioned which would help high poverty schools. There are about 10,000 schools around the country in which at least 4/5 of the children are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced priced meals. It doesn’t make sense for these schools to process the same paperwork that other schools do, just to identify the very small numbers of children who are not qualifying for free or reduced priced meals. The Hunger Free Schools Act would create a new option, known as community eligibility, that would enable these schools to serve all breakfast and lunches free. Instead of spending time on paperwork, staff could focus on more important issues, like giving their students a good education. Federal reimbursements would be based on the share of the school students receiving other public benefits. As I mentioned, there are about 10,000 schools nationwide that could qualify for community eligibility. These schools serve more than 1 in 10 school children nationwide. To qualify, a school or district would have to automatically enroll at least 40 percent of its students in the school meals program based on their receipt of other benefits, like food stamps. That’s a very high bar actually, but it would make sure that the option was targeted to schools serving the poorest communities. The goal here is really very simple. Hunger should no longer be a barrier to learning in schools that serve high poverty areas. And I’ve actually got fact sheets here for each of your districts, if you’re interested afterwards, that show which schools might qualify for this option.

The second proposal I wanted to mention, has to do with expanding automatic enrollment. Under the current school lunch eligibility rules, all children in households receiving food stamp benefits are eligible for free school meals, but they still have to be enrolled to get those meals. It doesn’t make sense to require parents who have already gone through a rigorous application process to get school meals, and schools shouldn’t be faced with this unnecessary paperwork – they have better things to spend their time on.

Federal law requires school districts to automatically enroll these children. The automatic enrollment process is called direct certification. The Hunger Free Schools Act includes an important expansion of direct certification. It would expand direct certification by expanding the use of Medicaid data. Under the current rules Medicaid data can’t be used for this purpose. We estimate that there are 2 million low-income children around the country who could be automatically enrolled for free school meals for the first time using Medicaid data. Some of these children are already being enrolled for these meals but filling out a standard paper application – some of them aren’t getting the meals now. Directly certifying more children would not only simplify the enrollment process, it would also likely reduce program error – and it does that by shrinking the number of children approved through the paper application process. As you can imagine, parents or schools can make mistakes while filling out an application or processing one. Relying instead on income data that the food stamp program or Medicaid program has carefully gathered and assessed and verified would limit the opportunity for error. So let me just conclude by reiterating that we urge you to let schools focus on feeding hungry children by including the Hunger Free Schools Act in reauthorization legislation. No vulnerable child should miss out on healthy meals because of red tape.

Thank you.