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