More About Zoë Neuberger

Zoë Neuberger

Neuberger, a Senior Policy Analyst, joined the Center in May 2001.

Full bio and recent public appearances | Research archive at

Schools Can Do Even More to Shield Children From Hunger

September 8, 2014 at 12:33 pm

As students begin a new school year, U.S. Department of Agriculture data confirm that too many children — nearly 16 million — live in families that continue to struggle to afford adequate food, known as “food insecurity.”  While many parents in these households can shield their children from hardship, in more than half of them, children themselves were food insecure.  Poor diets and the stress of not knowing when their next meal will be take an enormous and lasting toll on children’s health, development, and readiness to learn.

That’s why the federal nutrition programs that serve children are so important.  Consider the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, well-established programs that have been feeding millions of children for decades, and that keep improving.  These programs reach a striking share of American children.  On a typical day during the past school year, more than 30 million — nearly three in five — students ate a school lunch.  Some 71 percent of those children — more than 21 million — received a free or reduced-price meal.  That means that more than two in five students benefited from free or reduced-price lunches on a typical day last year (see chart).

Despite this extraordinary reach, some children who could benefit from free school meals miss out because their school district doesn’t automatically enroll them as required.  But states and school districts can take steps to ensure that the most vulnerable children receive free meals.

For example, states can improve the processes for automatically enrolling children for free meals when their family receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamp) benefits.  School districts can make sure they are identifying children who are homeless or in foster care so that they begin receiving free meals immediately during a period of family turmoil.  And under a new policy that’s especially important at the start of the school year, schools can begin feeding low-income children as soon as they receive an application, even if they have a processing backlog.

This school year, high-poverty schools across the country also have a new opportunity, under the Community Eligibility Provision, to feed all students at no cost while simplifying their meal programs.  Thousands of schools have already implemented community eligibility and states may continue to accept applications from eligible districts to offer community eligibility for this school year.

For the millions of children in families that struggle to afford nutritious food, being able to count on receiving two healthy meals each school day is a critical support.

Community Eligibility: A Proven Tool to Address Child Hunger

July 14, 2014 at 11:21 am

Many school districts across the country are adopting community eligibility — which allows high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge without having to process meal applications — to support their students’ health and learning.  Some eligible districts are wary of the new option (which hasn’t been available nationwide until now) and want to make sure any glitches are worked out before signing up.  But newly available data from the seven states that have had the option for two or three years show that many school districts that took a “wait and see” approach liked what they saw and signed up the next year.

In six of those seven states, the number of schools offering community eligibility grew steadily each year (see chart).  And in the seventh, the District of Columbia, more than half of all students attend community eligibility schools, though the number of participating schools dipped the second year as two schools closed for unrelated reasons.


So, districts considering community eligibility need not worry about being guinea pigs.  Thousands of schools serving nearly 2 million students have already tested it.

Those states and school districts have also developed useful materials that districts considering the option can use.  And the Agriculture and Education departments have answered many of the implementation questions they raised.

In short, community eligibility is a proven tool to help children receive the healthy meals they need to learn and thrive.

School Districts Can Adopt Community Eligibility and Still Obtain Other Assistance

June 27, 2014 at 11:53 am

Thousands of high-poverty schools across the country have already adopted “community eligibility” to offer nutritious meals to all students at no charge.  Officials in some school districts considering the option have voiced concerns that it would cost them federal or state aid that normally is allocated on the basis of family income information from school meal applications, which community eligibility schools don’t collect.  However, as we’ve previously explained (here and here), alternative data sources are readily available to ensure that no school misses out on aid for which it qualifies.

The Agriculture and Education Departments have adopted policies so that school districts with community eligibility schools no longer need to collect individual income data to participate in federal programs.  An important example is Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal funds to help the most educationally disadvantaged students.

Each school district’s Title I funding is based on census data, so community eligibility doesn’t affect it.  School districts generally allocate Title I funds among schools based on their percentage of students from low-income families, as determined by school meal application data.  But comprehensive policy guidance from the Education Department offers several other data sources that states and districts adopting community eligibility may use in selecting Title I schools and allocating funds among them — including school meals program data that’s readily available for all schools, whether they offer community eligibility or not.  We explain those options in this brief report and this more detailed version.

Some states require individual income data to determine state education funding allocations, and some districts choose to collect this data for other purposes, including monitoring student achievement or determining who receives waivers from school district fees.

However, alternative data sources are available to meet these needs for community eligibility schools, as this report explains.  Moreover, when districts do have to collect individual income data, they have found ways to do so effectively without connecting the forms to school meals.

The positive experience of states and school districts that have already implemented community eligibility shows that the loss of school meal application data should not dissuade schools from adopting community eligibility.  Kentucky and Michigan have both offered community eligibility since the 2011-2012 school year, for example, and both had to require school districts with community eligibility schools to collect individual income data due to the way state education funding is allocated.  Both states collected new income information forms from families without a negative impact on school funding.

Finally, the popularity of community eligibility in these states has continued to grow.  Over the past three years, the number of participating schools has risen in both states, with three times as many Kentucky schools participating now as in community eligibility’s first year.

Congress Must Resist Lobbyists’ Efforts to Undercut Nutrition Reforms

June 17, 2014 at 4:36 pm

The Senate today will begin considering its annual Agriculture Department funding bill, which covers the child nutrition programs.  The bill already includes measures promoted by industry lobbyists that would undercut reforms designed to improve children’s nutrition and combat childhood obesity.  Senators must reject any amendments that would further weaken reforms, as we explain in an updated commentary.

Child obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years and poses a serious health threat.  Recently, we have made some progress.  The rise in child obesity rates has halted, and obesity may even be falling among preschoolers.  A multi-pronged response to child obesity by the federal government and health professionals appears to be playing an important role in these developments.  Federal policy reforms in child nutrition programs — such as the 2009 revisions to the WIC food package — may have contributed to improved diets and the halt in the rise in obesity rates among low-income preschool children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  And, a Harvard study found that children’s consumption of fruit and vegetables increased by 23 percent and 16 percent, respectively, after new school meal standards were implemented.

But these reforms are now in jeopardy.  In three areas where, at Congress’s direction, the Agriculture Department has implemented policies to improve children’s diets based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine — school meals, school snacks, and foods offered by the WIC program — affected industries are seeking to reverse those science-based policies in the agriculture appropriations bills.

The Agriculture Department funding bill adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is now before the full Senate, includes a few modest revisions to the new meal standards aimed at maintaining a science-based approach to nutrition policy and helping school districts comply.  The bill does interfere with the science-based process for WIC, however, by requiring the program to offer white potatoes — though the next science-based review of WIC foods would determine whether WIC would continue to offer white potatoes.

If senators want to continue the recent progress in improving children’s diets and halting the spread of child obesity, they must reject changes that would weaken the new school food standards or further override the science-based process for determining WIC foods.

Identifying Low-Income Students in Community Eligibility Schools for “Title I” Purposes

June 2, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Most schools use applications for the school breakfast and lunch programs to determine students’ income levels for the federal “Title I” program for disadvantaged students, our new report explains, but schools offering community eligibility — a new option that allows schools in high-poverty areas to serve free meals to all students without charge — no longer collect those applications.

Community eligibility thus has important implications for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal funds to improve the achievement of the most educationally disadvantaged students.  The most important implications relate to allocation of Title I funds among schools within a school district and Title I accountability policies requiring schools to monitor achievement levels for students from low-income families and take appropriate action when those levels are inadequate.

For the vast majority of public schools, approval to receive free or reduced-price school meals has been the primary, often the sole, indicator of low family income for Title I purposes.  Schools or school districts that adopt community eligibility no longer collect those data, so districts must find other ways to assess students’ income levels.  Fortunately, comprehensive policy guidance from the U.S. Department of Education gives districts a wide range of options to choose from so they can implement community eligibility with minimal interference with Title I.

Our new report explains what the options are.