Developing strategies to end hunger
 

Success in Fighting Hunger: Community Eligibility Brings Kids to the Table

Three children holding cafeteria trays with cafeteria employee smiling at them.
photo credit: USDA

The USDA has a program that enables more low-income children to eat breakfast and lunch at school while also cutting down on paperwork. It’s called community eligibility. Starting in the 2014-2015 school year, all states will be able to participate – thus expanding its success.

Community eligibility is designed to help areas that have many children in high-need situations. This report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research and Action Center explains clearly how the program works. Community eligibility allows a school to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, rather than requiring each family to prove that their children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. A school, cluster of schools, or school district is allowed to use community eligibility if at least 40 percent of its students are in “identified” high-need categories, such as being homeless, living in foster care, or belonging to a household that participates in SNAP or TANF. Since many students qualify for free meals but don’t fall into an identified student category, the school multiplies its identified student percentage by 1.6 to calculate the proportion of school meals for which USDA will reimburse it. 

Since the community eligibility program began in 2010, states have been added slowly. As USDA notes, community eligibility eliminates the need for schools to process applications and collect meal payments from individual students; offering all kids the same food also reduces any stigma associated with free and reduced meals. Community eligibility gives families with household incomes just slightly above the threshold for free or reduced meals a little more flexibility in their budgets. And kids who have always been eligible for free school meals, but whose parents did not fill out the forms — due to low literacy, fear that they will be exposed as undocumented immigrants, embarrassment, and/or a combination of these and other reasons — are able to eat with their classmates.

Of course that’s important to every child as an individual. It’s also important at the school level, because school meals lead to better academic performance. School breakfast – even when compared to breakfast at home – is associated with  better performance on standardized tests, lower obesity rates, and consumption of a wider range of healthy foods. Students who eat breakfast at school also have an average of 1.5 fewer days absent each year. 

Starting this fall, schools in all states can participate in the community eligibility program. States will release lists of qualifying schools by May 1 (many lists are already available here), and districts have until June 30 to decide whether they’d like to participate. Given the success community eligibility has enjoyed in schools that have already tried it, we expect that a lot more low-income kids will be enjoying breakfasts and lunches with their classmates next school year.  

Stacy Cloyd

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