Saturday, April 9, 2016

Increasing Access to School Meals

In the 2015–2016 school year, its second year of nationwide availability, more than 18,000 high-poverty schools, in nearly 3,000 school districts across the country, have adopted community eligibility, an option that allows qualifying schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students without collecting and processing individual school meal applications.  This is an increase of about 4,000 schools compared to the prior year, further demonstrating the appeal of the new provision.

These schools, which serve more than 8.5 million children, represent just over half of all eligible schools, a strikingly high take-up rate for such a new federal program.[ Those figures are up from 14,214 schools — about 45 percent of those eligible — serving 6.7 million students in the 2014–2015 school year.  Consistent with last year, take-up was higher among the highest-poverty schools, where nearly all children are already eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

Community eligibility is a powerful tool that allows school districts to target nutrition benefits to children in high-poverty schools. Congress created the Community Eligibility Provision in the 2010 reauthorization of the child nutrition programs.  After a three-year phase-in period, the provision became available nationwide in the 2014–2015 school year.  Schools across the country have quickly adopted it due to its many benefits. Community eligibility is a powerful tool that allows school districts to target nutrition benefits to children in high-poverty schools.  It not only eliminates redundant paperwork at such schools, but also makes possible substantial gains in meeting vulnerable children’s nutritional needs by providing them with a free and healthy breakfast and lunch at school each day.  Reliable access to healthy meals, in turn, better prepares students to learn.

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.  Including the three initial years during which 11 states piloted community eligibility, take-up rates have risen each year, demonstrating the provision’s popularity as more eligible districts have become aware of its many benefits and ease of implementation.  State agencies also have become more familiar with community eligibility, which has contributed to more widespread adoption.  Through the piloting and first year of nationwide availability, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Education, and state child nutrition agencies gained experience with community eligibility and were then able to offer more targeted technical assistance, trainings, and outreach to districts to facilitate implementation.  State and local anti-hunger advocates also played an important role in educating eligible schools about the new option.

Nevertheless, many eligible schools still have not yet implemented community eligibility, and take-up varies substantially across states.  This report is designed to help state and local education stakeholders, school nutrition administrators, policymakers, and state and local anti-hunger advocates identify eligible schools and districts that have not adopted the option but could benefit from it.  (Appendix 2 describes resources to support its implementation.)  The report assesses community eligibility take-up in each state for the 2015–2016 school year using three measures, and compares the findings for each measure to take-up last year:
  • the share of eligible school districts adopting it;
  • the share of eligible schools adopting it; and
  • the share of the highest-poverty schools adopting it.
The report summarizes data gathered by USDA, in collaboration with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC).

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