New school meals program can help kids in poverty

healthy_lunchOklahoma is a hungry state. A 2011 study ranked Oklahoma 15th nationwide for food insecurity; one in six Oklahomans lacks consistent access to adequate food. And food insecurity is higher for children than adults: one in four children was food-insecure in the same time period. The impacts of childhood hunger are significant and lasting, from lasting physical and mental health problems to difficulty focusing and interacting with peers. 

Meals in schools are one way of helping food-insecure students have access to nutritious food on a regular basis. Free and reduced lunch programs help schools identify students in need and provide them with affordable meals, and the USDA reimburses schools in turn. However, a new meals program may provide high-poverty schools a better mechanism for fighting hunger while reducing costs.

What’s the problem with the current school lunch system?

Free and reduced lunches aren’t the most efficient way of making sure hungry students are fed. While some students are automatically deemed eligible, the majority of program applicants have to demonstrate need in order to qualify. This requires students to bring home a form, make sure their parents fill it out correctly, and then bring it back to school, where it is processed. But problems can occur at multiple steps of that process – students can lose the paperwork, parents can make errors, and schools can misprocess applications, and an error at any point can leave students out – and hungry.  

Furthermore, free school meals can carry a stigma. Eligible students often pass up on participating in free breakfasts because of the stigma of eating in the cafeteria before classes. Similarly, a variety of recent high-profile incidents where schools denied meals to students unable to pay for them show how humiliating being unable to buy lunch can be for students. School systems can also incur significant debt from students with unpaid meal charges – in an extreme example, New York City’s public schools racked up $42 million in unpaid meal debt over an eight-year period. It’s an imperfect system for both schools and students.

But a new program will give some Oklahoma schools the option of providing free breakfast and lunch for all students – without applications and regardless of ability to pay. ‘Community eligibility,’ a mechanism written into the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, allows qualifying high-poverty school districts, individual schools or groups of schools to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students. Community eligibility has been  phased in nationwide, beginning in three states in 2011. It has so far been adopted by over 4,000 schools in eleven states and is available to all states for the 2014 – 2015 school year.

How can schools qualify for community eligibility?

Qualification for community eligibility is determined via direct certification – a process traditionally used by states and schools to certify students eligible for free school meals without applications. To qualify for direct certification, the child’s family must be recipients of SNAP, TANF, or assistance from the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations; students also qualify if they’re foster children, migrant, or homeless.  Under community eligibility, if at least 40 percent of a school, group of schools, or a school district qualify for direct certification, all students can eat breakfast and lunch for free.

What does community eligibility mean for school budgets?

This can be a good deal for schools and for students. Traditionally, reimbursements from the government for student meals fall into one of three categories: free, reduced, or full-payment. When students pay the full cost of their lunches, schools are reimbursed $0.28 to cover administrative costs; for reduced-cost lunches, schools are reimbursed $2.53; and for free lunches, $2.93 (the numbers are smaller but fall along similar lines for breakfasts). However, community eligibility schools are reimbursed for the cost of free meals to the tune of their direct certification percentage multiplied by 1.6, up to 100 percent. For example, if 45 percent of a school is direct certification, the school is reimbursed as though 72 percent of students were receiving free meals. The remaining 28 percent of meals are reimbursed at the ‘paid rate.’

For some schools, this can result in more net funding than they would otherwise have. Schools with 40 percent or more direct certification students usually have 65 percent or more students approved for free or reduced meals, so it’s possible for schools be reimbursed more with community eligibility than without. One example is Shawnee Public Schools, which is implementing community eligibility in its five elementary schools starting in the fall. The combined average direct certification of all five schools is 61 percent. With the 1.6 multiplier, that yields 98 percent of meals reimbursed at the free lunch rate. Shawnee Public Schools’ Nutritional Services Director Deborah Taylor estimates that, even with the lost revenue from students currently paying full price, her district will come out $20,000 ahead.

When I asked where that additional money would go, she laughed: “Well, we just had a hot water heater go out at one of the elementary schools, and that’s $5,000.” Community eligibility also allows schools to reduce administrative costs – free or reduced lunch forms no longer need to be inspected and filed, and students don’t need to swipe ID cards or enter ID numbers in the lunch line. Schools can thus divert administrators and staff to other tasks and areas of responsibility. One administrator told me of eagerly anticipating the day when students aren’t juggling lunch trays and ID cards – a process that frequently ends in fruit cups on the floor.

What does community eligibility mean for kids?

Community eligibility demonstrably helps kids. In schools that have implemented community eligibility, school breakfast and lunch participation rates have jumped substantially. In Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan, the lunch participation rate in community eligibility schools was 78 percent, compared to 53 percent participation in other schools. And community eligibility schools in those states saw 56 percent participation in school breakfast, compared to 23 percent in non-community eligibility schools in those states. Studies show that universal school breakfasts positively affect everything from student health to test scores. Clearly, community eligibility fills a need.

Community eligibility schools can also be more innovative in how they deliver food to students. Noting that students eligible for free breakfasts often don’t eat them, whether due to stigma or logistical issues – buses often don’t arrive in time for students to eat before class – some schools have created a short ‘breakfast period’ after first hour. Others allow students to spend the first ten minutes of first hour eating. The gains students make from consistently eating breakfast outweigh the minor disruption of eating during class.

The bottom line

Community eligibility is a targeted, low-cost option to help hungry Oklahoma children.  Schools have until June 30 to sign up for the 2014-2015 school year. Parents, teachers, and administrators should investigate if community eligibility is an option for their schools. 

Although the Oklahoma Department of Education chose to institute an April deadline for community eligibility signups, the nationwide signup cutoff is June 30. Oklahoma schools and school districts can continue to sign up through the June 30 deadline [UPDATE: The deadline has been extended to August 31]. In order to sign up, school district administrators should contact Child Nutrition Programs at the State Department of Education. An estimated 94 Oklahoma school districts are eligible, and only a fraction of them are believed to have signed up so far. 

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Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

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