Wait, Congress. Community Eligibility Works for Struggling Schools

It seems like a no-brainer. Hungry kids have a harder time succeeding at school. Making healthy school meals available reduces hunger for vulnerable students, setting them up for healthy development and learning. 

Breakfast and lunch are available free of charge to low-income students through the federal school meals program, but not everyone who’s eligible participates. And some schools in high-poverty neighborhoods have to spend time processing applications and tracking eligibility in the cafeteria for kids they know to be poor. This unnecessary paperwork can be a real challenge for schools serving poor communities and absorbs resources they could devote to meeting their students’ other educational needs.    

In 2010 Congress wisely created a tool known as community eligibility that bypasses unnecessary paperwork and administrative burdens, making it easier for high-poverty schools to provide these critical meals to their vulnerable students.    

Under the community eligibility option, certain high-poverty schools can serve meals at no charge to all students without processing applications. Instead of using applications to establish the number of children that are low-income, the schools use data from programs like food stamps (SNAP) to determine their poverty levels. The option significantly reduces red tape for schools, and it helps kids by reducing stigma in the lunch line as well as giving them more time to eat.

Because it works so well, community eligibility is now being used by more than 18,000 schools — serving more than 8.5 million students. It’s passionately appreciated by teachers, administrators, and parents in the schools that use it. They know that making sure students can eat is necessary for a strong school community and a solid education.

So why is Congress now considering cutting back on community eligibility? 

Certain members of the U.S. House of Representatives want to limit severely the program’s reach, despite its success. A provision included in legislation to reauthorize the child nutrition programs (H.R. 5003), introduced by Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN), chair of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, would bar thousands of high-poverty schools around the country from participating in community eligibility.

Under the proposal, over 7,000 schools serving 3.4 million children nationwide would no longer be eligible to use community eligibility, reinstating cumbersome paperwork and meal-by-meal tracking in the lunch line. This rollback would make it harder for students to access meals and likely lower their participation.

Both schools and children have a lot to lose. For example, in Kentucky alone, where more than 26 percent of the children in the state lived in poverty in 2014, Rep. Rokita’s bill would affect 343 schools serving more than 190,000 students.

Fayette County Public Schools spokesperson Lisa Deffendall recently described the impact to the Lexington Herald-Leader: “We have seen tremendous benefits for our students in the two years the community eligibility provision has been available in the Fayette County Public Schools,” she said. “We currently have 36 schools feeding 19,501 students a healthy breakfast and lunch daily under this program. If this legislation were approved, it would strip this service from more than 10,000 students at 17 schools.”

Growing up in poverty can have lasting effects on a child’s growth and development. Specifically, food insecurity is linked to a number of negative health outcomes, such as increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as nutritional deficiencies and negative behavioral, social, and academic outcomes. When schools adopt community eligibility, more children eat school meals. Increasing meal participation improves students’ diets, behavior, and academic achievement.

Including the three initial years during which 11 states piloted community eligibility, the number of schools using the option has risen each year as more eligible districts have become aware of the option's many benefits. Community eligibility’s popularity in its first two years of nationwide implementation speaks to schools’ desire to improve access to healthy meals while reducing red tape, as well as to the option’s sound design.

It’s surprising that the House committee charged with overseeing education policy would make it harder for low-income schools to succeed. At a time when policymakers are looking for effective solutions to reducing complex problems, we shouldn’t curtail a proven tool that not only reduces hunger but helps our high-poverty schools focus on what’s most important: helping children grow, learn, and thrive.

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