Six years ago Congress did something right. They said that high-poverty schools could skip the individual child-by-child means testing and just feed all the kids free breakfast and lunch. That saved hundreds of thousands of dollars previously spent on processing eligibility forms, as well as thousands of hours of teacher and parent time. More importantly, when everybody can eat for free, nobody has to feel singled out as “that poor kid getting a free lunch.” Free, in-school breakfasts increase the number of kids starting the day ready to learn. Now that the program is succeeding, Republicans in Congress want to roll it back.
The 2010 Community Eligibility Provision was phased in gradually, with full national coverage last year. Not all eligible schools choose to participate, but more than 8.5 million kids got access to free breakfast and lunch in the 2015-2016 school year. According to the Food Research and Action Council:
Any district, group of schools in a district, or individual school with 40 percent or more “identified students” —children eligible for free school meals who already are identified by other means than an individual household application—can choose to participate.
In the 2015-2016 school year, that meant:
More than 18,000 schools—just over half of all eligible schools—offered free breakfast and lunch to all students through community eligibility, an increase of 4,000 schools from the 2014-2015 school year.
More than 3,000 school districts are participating in community eligibility in all or some of their schools, up from 2,200 the year before.
In Minnesota, hundreds of individual schools and more than 50 districts have a high enough poverty rate to participate. (Both district and school numbers include charter schools.)
Detroit currently has 57 percent of its children living in poverty, and many of those children rely on free meals at school:
“‘During the school day, the job of filling children’s empty stomachs rests with Betti J. Wiggins, the executive director of Detroit Public Schools office of school nutrition. The district enrolls about 46,000 students, and advertises free breakfast and lunch for every child—not just those who qualify and apply for the benefit.”
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, more than half of children in district schools qualify for free meals, so both districts are eligible to offer free meals to all students. Both offer free breakfast to all students. St. Paul also offers free lunch in 40 Community Eligibility Program schools. Minneapolis has 20 schools participating, with six more coming next year.
It takes a village to raise a child. Sometimes it takes a village to feed a child, too.
Republicans in Congress are proposing a rollback of Community Eligibility rules. The original CEP passed as part of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. With the law up for reauthorization this year, Republicans want to change the number of impoverished students needed for all-school eligibility from the current 40 percent to 60 percent. The Atlantic reports:
“In urban school districts like Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago—along with rural districts across the country with large numbers of low-income families—there are upwards of 7,000 schools that have adopted community eligibility but would fail to meet the proposed 60 percent criteria. Another 11,000 schools that qualify for the program, but have not yet adopted community eligibility, would also lose the option because they fall below the 60 percent mark.”
If Congress rolls back the program, that will mean more paperwork for schools and fewer students starting the day with a healthy breakfast. For some students living in poverty, it may mean a return to not eating lunch. In south central Georgia, eighth-grade counselor Jill Pruitt told The Atlantic about ” students want so desperately to fit in that they are even willing to skip lunch instead of being called poor.”
“’Peer pressure is very powerful, and students have often felt ashamed of being on the ‘free lunch’ list,’” she said. Thanks to the CEP, this year all students at the school are allowed to eat free lunch. “Students are free to eat without being categorized and stigmatized, and this has created a wonderful climate of equality and cooperation,” said Pruitt.”
Too bad that climate of equality and cooperation hasn’t reached Congress.