It’s Hard to Learn When You’re Hungry
Nearly 17 million children live in households that have trouble affording enough nutritious food at some point during the year, according to figures that the Agriculture Department released this week. That’s a powerful reminder of why we must make sure that every child who needs school meals gets them, including low-income children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. My new report explains several steps that schools can take to make enrollment as smooth as possible. They fall into three broad categories:
- Using special tools to enroll the most vulnerable children. Children who are in foster care, are homeless or migrant, or receive SNAP (formerly food stamps) do not need to complete an application because of their special vulnerability and because other programs have already assessed their need. Connecting every one of these children to free school meals would reduce child hunger and help these children succeed in school despite hardships at home. The Agriculture Department has funds available to help states adopt best practices in this area.
- Making sure that applications are easy for parents to understand and complete. Applications must not ask for information that the school does not need to determine eligibility. They also need to be in a language and at a level that a parent can understand. School districts are beginning to develop promising practices to ensure that language is not a barrier to applying for school meals.
- Serving breakfasts and lunches free to all children in high-poverty schools under the new “community eligibility” option. By reducing schools’ paperwork, this option frees up resources so schools can concentrate on reducing hunger and improving meal quality. As a school official in Ohio commented, “It’s a good thing for the kids. It’s a good thing for the community. It’s a good thing for parents. . . . We can focus on our job of serving healthy school meals that keep our students active and learning.”
Next year, the Agriculture Department will choose four states to join the seven that have already implemented community eligibility; after that, the option will be available to any school district in America. The early adopters have developed useful resources that will make it easier for schools in poor neighborhoods to implement community eligibility.
Because school children are a captive audience, one can understandably assume that all children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals get enrolled. By focusing on improving access and taking concrete steps throughout the school year, program administrators can make that goal a reality.