The Center's work on 'Child Nutrition and WIC' Issues


Data Desire Needn’t Be Barrier to Kids’ Meals

October 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is now available nationwide, yet some districts are hesitant to implement it for fear of losing data from school meal applications.  But to get the data, we need not sacrifice school meals for kids.

Across the country, teachers and school nutrition administrators have praised CEP, which allows high-poverty schools to feed all students breakfast and lunch at no charge, for streamlining the school meal programs.  One of its key benefits is that participating schools don’t collect meal applications or make individual eligibility determinations, removing an administrative burden on school districts.  Instead, whole schools qualify to implement CEP based on the share of their students who are automatically approved for school meals because their families are enrolled in an anti-poverty program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) or because they are at risk of hunger due to being homeless or in foster care.

While eliminating meal applications simplifies school meal programs, school districts have long used the income data from applications to gauge a school’s or family’s poverty level to target education funding or other benefits to the most needy.  As a result, it’s critical that CEP not disadvantage high-poverty schools or low-income children with regard to education funding or services.  It is equally important that an interest in data from school meal applications not stand in the way of making it easier for low-income children to receive the nutritious meals they need at school.

School districts and states that need a data source to replace the meal applications can use one of many available alternatives.  The U.S. Department of Education has issued detailed and flexible guidance on how CEP schools can fully participate in Title I, the federal education funding stream for disadvantaged students.  The guidance offers three main options for alternative data that school districts can use when implementing CEP.  The states that adopted CEP over the past few years have praised the flexible options.

States have taken different approaches with regard to their own education funding and other benefits that states and school districts allocate based on meal application data.  Louisiana and Texas, for example, are relying on the data that remains available through the school meal programs (Louisiana combines it with data from other programs).  States like Kentucky and Michigan have school districts collect individual income information outside the meal programs, which makes sense when the data are needed for other purposes.  California requires school districts to collect individual income data, but they can then use the data for four years.

Changing data sources does require administrative adjustments and may result in modest shifts in funding allocations.  But we hope that schools’ desire for data about which children are struggling with poverty and food insecurity won’t stand in the way of alleviating those hardships.

VA Governor Lauds Community Eligibility

September 29, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has good things to say about the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows high-poverty schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.  Speaking recently about how to improve education, he said in part:

It will surprise no one here to learn that studies show poverty is the number one predictor that a student will face educational challenges. . . .  Nor will it surprise anyone that the number of students here in Petersburg impacted by the local economy is high. . . .  This doesn’t excuse failure – in fact it makes it all the more important that we help these children succeed. . . .

[Local] educational leaders are ensuring that students get the nutritional support they need through the Community Eligibility Provision.  This important program allows school divisions to offer free breakfast and lunch to every student if the division meets certain criteria. Richmond and Petersburg have implemented this program division wide, and Norfolk has opened the program to its eight eligible schools.

[School nutrition] programs work and we need to ensure that every single Virginia school division is taking maximum advantage of federal and state resources to get students the nutrition they need to fulfill their potential. . . .

I want to stress the importance of running these programs in a way that eliminates the stigma about free and reduced [price] meals. There should be no special lines or unique treatment for these students, so that they can get the nutrition they need without embarrassment.

The option became available to high-poverty schools nationwide this year for the first time, and preliminary data show that 86 Virginia schools have adopted it, reaching almost 43,000 students.  Officials in other states have described the difference that it’s making in terms of student attendance and academic performance.

Educators and policymakers have long recognized that hungry students are not well-positioned to learn.   CEP is a proven tool to ensure that all students at high-poverty schools have two nutritious meals daily, which helps them succeed in the classroom.

School districts interested in adopting community eligibility for the current school year can reach out to their state nutrition director for further information.

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.

Counting Down to August 31 Deadline to Adopt Community Eligibility

August 28, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Schools have a few more days before the August 31 deadline to opt in to the Community Eligibility Provision.  Community eligibility — which allows high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge without having to process meal applications —is a proven success and an important tool to help children achieve their academic goals.  More than 28,000 schools nationwide are eligible to adopt the provision and become hunger-free.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has encouraged states to continue to accept applications after the deadline and even after the school year begins.  During this transition year, schools can still implement community eligibility even if they have disseminated and collected free and reduced-price meal applications, according to USDA’s July 2014 Guidance.  The sooner they adopt the provision, however, the sooner they will be able to cut back on paperwork, receive reimbursement according to the community eligibility formula — and make meals more readily available to all students.

Community eligibility allows high-poverty schools to ensure that students are ready to learn and receive two nutritious meals every day.  Schools can receive more information on their individual state’s application process by contacting their State Nutrition Director.

What Schools Are Saying About Community Eligibility

August 15, 2014 at 11:14 am

School officials around the country have explained (see here and here) why they’re adopting community eligibility, a powerful new tool to fight hunger in high-poverty neighborhoods by allowing schools to offer nutritious meals to all students at no charge.  As schools and families prepare for the new school year — and as the August 31st signup deadline for eligible schools approaches — here’s more of what school officials are saying about the benefits of community eligibility:

  • Bill Redwine, chair of Rowan County, Kentucky, board of education:

    “This program will have a direct benefit on students in the classroom because teachers know that students who are hungry or have not had breakfast have difficulty concentrating on their schoolwork. . . .  It will also benefit those parents who, in the past, have struggled to provide the money for their child’s meals.  This definitely is a win for our students, for their parents and for our district as a whole.”

  • Jesse Register, director of Metropolitan Nashville, Tennessee, schools:

    “We’re firm believers in educating the whole child and providing them what they need for productive school days.  If a child is hungry, he’s going to have trouble learning.  No child should go hungry and no child should be embarrassed about accepting a meal.  By making it universal, we don’t have to single out any child and we can make family budgets a little less tight.”

  • Margaret Allen, superintendent of Montgomery, Alabama schools:

    “Studies have shown that children who receive proper nutrition perform better in school. . . .   Many of our families live below the poverty line.  Even those that don’t, may skip meals to save money.  This will ensure learning won’t suffer because a student is hungry at school.”

  • Kim Hall, director of child nutrition services, Muskogee, Oklahoma, public schools:

    “Being able to eat a nutritious meal during the day helps the students learn — students that eat during the day are more likely to pay attention because they are not worried about being hungry.”

  • Joey Vaughn, nutrition director, Huntsville, Alabama, city schools:

    “Hopefully, this is going to do away with the stigma [of receiving free school meals] because everybody is going to be able to eat for free.  Nobody’s got to fill out any paperwork; nobody’s got to prove their financial status.”

  • Lisa Stevenson, principal of Neil Armstrong Elementary School, Eldridge, Iowa:

    “Families that don’t have as much money don’t spend the extra money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery store because that’s expensive. . . .  This is an opportunity for us to get kids . . . on the right path to trying new and healthy food when they’re at school.”

  • Donna Hargens, superintendent of Jefferson County, Kentucky, public schools:

    “You can’t learn if you’re hungry so we know that providing breakfast and lunch for more of our kids is a really important ingredient and that’s just integral to kids learning.”

Is Your School Eligible to Become Hunger Free?

August 13, 2014 at 3:47 pm

With the August 31 deadline fast approaching for schools to adopt the Community Eligibility Provision for the new school year, we’ve created a searchable database listing each state’s eligible schools.

Community eligibility, which becomes available nationwide this year, enables high-poverty schools and school districts to serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.

The database also lists each state’s Identified Student Percentage (ISP), or the share of students who are already approved for free meals without an application because they either have been identified as low income by another program (such as SNAP, formerly food stamps) or are considered at risk of hunger (because they are homeless or in foster care, for example).

School districts, individual schools, or groups of schools can qualify for community eligibility if their ISP is at least 40 percent.  And under community eligibility, schools with higher ISPs receive higher federal reimbursements for the meals they serve.

For more on community eligibility, see this detailed report.

Community Eligibility Poised to Help Millions More Students

August 7, 2014 at 11:11 am

More than 1.8 million students attended schools in 11 states last year that offered community eligibility, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (see chart).  Community eligibility, which allows high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge without having to process meal applications, is now available nationwide, enabling schools in all 50 states to become hunger free.  Eligible schools have until August 31 to sign up for the coming school year.

More than 28,000 schools nationwide qualify for community eligibility.  School districts across the country have already adopted community eligibility for next year, including those as varied as Dallas, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; and Yakima, Washington.  More districts are signing up every day.

Community eligibility gives school districts serving high-poverty areas a rare opportunity to fight child hunger.  As schools in the states that already have adopted it have learned, community eligibility is a proven tool to help children receive the healthy meals they need to learn and thrive.

Top 10 Reasons for Schools to Adopt Community Eligibility

July 17, 2014 at 12:15 pm

I joined thousands of school nutrition administrators from across the country in Boston this week for their annual conference to share information about how high-poverty school districts can eliminate applications and serve meals to all students at no charge under the new option known as community eligibility.  Over and over, I heard from people who spend their days feeding children about how much it pains them to watch a hungry teenager avoid the cafeteria out of embarrassment or to have to collect lunch fees from struggling parents.  And, encouragingly, I heard about many districts that are poised to implement community eligibility, including El Paso, Texas, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Sumter, South Carolina.

Community eligibility can help schools in many ways.  For example, one Oregon school nutrition director who plans to adopt community eligibility, declared that she will not have to process 11,000 school meal applications this fall, enabling her to spend more time planning appealing, nutritious menus.

School districts have until August 31 to opt in to community eligibility for this coming school year.  Here are ten reasons to adopt community eligibility:

  1. Make the cafeteria the hot spot.  Meal participation increases in schools using community eligibility.
  2. Stop pushing paper.  Community eligibility eliminates meal applications.
  3. Be an innovator.  Community eligibility increases breakfast participation and makes it easier to offer breakfast even after the school day officially starts.
  4. Eliminate collections.  Without fees, schools won’t have to track down parents who haven’t paid.
  5. Reduce teen angst.  When all students eat at no charge, students worry less about being stigmatized for eating a school meal.
  6. Impress your accountants.  When more students eat, schools can achieve economies of scale and the per-meal cost falls.
  7. Get gold stars from teachers.  Increases in breakfast participation are associated with decreases in discipline referrals, visits to school nurses, and tardiness.
  8. Give parents peace of mind.  Parents know that their children can get two healthy meals each day.
  9. Be part of something #trending.  In the first three years, 4,000 schools offered community eligibility, and 28,000 schools are eligible to offer it now.
  10. Make your school hunger free.  Community eligibility ensures children get the meals they need to grow, learn, and thrive.

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.

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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.

“All In with Chris Hayes” Highlights Community Eligibility

July 11, 2014 at 11:10 am

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes covered Chicago’s decision to adopt community eligibility, which allows schools with high percentages of low-income children to serve breakfasts and lunches to all children free of charge, for all its schools.  The story from earlier this week, which also featured other large districts that have adopted community eligibility, explained how taking the option helps children while simplifying the administrative tasks for schools.  Community eligibility means that “kids can concentrate on their work instead of their hunger and, notably, takes away the stigma of being a free-lunch kid,” Hayes explained.

More than 28,000 schools nationwide are eligible.  Schools have until August 31 to sign up.

Here is the clip:

Community Eligibility in 70 Seconds

July 10, 2014 at 12:47 pm

This brief video highlights the key benefits of community eligibility, which allows schools with high percentages of low-income children to serve breakfasts and lunches to all children free of charge.  More than 28,000 schools nationwide are eligible.  Schools have until August 31 to sign up.

Wide Variety of Schools Opting to Become Hunger-Free

July 7, 2014 at 12:08 pm

The community eligibility provision, through which schools in high-poverty areas can serve breakfasts and lunches to all students at no charge, is designed to work in many different settings — large school districts or small ones, urban or rural areas, district-wide or in selected schools.  Various types of districts have embraced the option in its first three years to support their educational goals.  The districts and schools that have opted in for this fall, when community eligibility becomes available nationwide, are quite diverse as well.

Several large cities, including Atlanta, Detroit, and Boston, already offer community eligibility, and others have signed up for the new school year.  Mobile, Alabama, will offer meals at no charge to all 59,000 students across 89 schools, for example.  Indianapolis, Indiana, will serve nearly 31,000 students at 59 schools breakfast and lunch daily.

Very small districts are signing up too, like Darby in rural Montana (population 720), which is adopting it for the local elementary school.

Districts embracing community eligibility also vary by ethnic makeup.  They include Montana’s Northern Cheyenne Tribal Schools, where 99 percent of students are Native American, and Harlingen, Texas, where 91 percent of students are Hispanic.

Experience shows that community eligibility works even when the district chooses to implement it at only some of its eligible schools.  Polk County, Florida, offered community eligibility at 50 of its 163 schools last year and reports great success with them.  Chicago Public Schools, which piloted community eligibility at 215 schools two years ago and expanded it to 465 schools last year, plans to offer it at all 658 schools next year.

The Agriculture Department has extended the deadline for schools to adopt community eligibility to August 31.  Until then, districts with high-poverty schools have an opportunity to improve their students’ learning environment and become hunger-free.