At a White House event this morning, First Lady Michelle Obama highlighted an important new provision that allows schools in high-poverty areas to fight hunger by providing free breakfasts and lunches to all students. Known as community eligibility, it has been phasing in since 2011 and this fall will be available to any school district nationwide that meets the eligibility criteria. More than 22,000 schools serving 9 million children will be eligible next school year, according to the White House.
CBPP has closely monitored the improvements that community eligibility has brought to schools thus far. We’ve also issued a guide with the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) to help states and schools implement the option. More information on community eligibility is available from the Agriculture Department and FRAC.
A school can qualify if 40 percent of its students are eligible for free school meals automatically — without completing an application — because they have been identified as low income by another program (such as SNAP, formerly food stamps) or are especially likely to face hunger (such as children who are homeless). That group represents just some of the children who would qualify for free or reduced-price school meals if they completed an application. Across the schools that participated in community eligibility in its first two years, 82 percent of students had been approved for free or reduced-price meals the prior year.
The First Lady emphasized the benefits of community eligibility for students, parents, and schools. Students no longer face stigma in the cafeteria from receiving a free meal, and studies show they are more likely to eat nutritious meals at school (especially breakfast). Parents no longer have to complete school meal applications and can rest assured that their children are well fed during the day.
Schools no longer have to process applications or have a cashier figure out whether to provide a free or reduced-price meal every time a child goes through the lunch line. They can use the freed-up staff time to focus on improving the quality of meals or the lunchroom environment.
Community eligibility has been extremely well-received by schools. As a Michigan state official put it:
Community eligibility has been an unqualified success in Michigan since we first started it in the fall of 2011. Schools have reported increased student participation in school meals along with higher food service revenues, and quicker, streamlined service in the cafeteria. The overwhelmingly positive experiences of the schools that implemented community eligibility in the first two years have demonstrated what a great opportunity this is and have encouraged more and more schools to take advantage of this option.