Proposed federal legislation could yank free school meals from 51,000 Oklahoma students

Photo by USDA / CC BY 2.0
Photo by USDA / CC BY 2.0

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act allows high-poverty schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students. Access to free, healthy meals helps low-income children and families by improving child nutrition and behavior, relieving administrative burdens, and taking some strain off tight family budgets.

Unfortunately, a proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives seeks to dramatically limit CEP’s scope, with potentially devastating consequences for low-income families. Congress shouldn’t jeopardize this progress by making it harder for students and schools to receive this much-needed help.

The Community Eligibility Provision helps low-income families and schools.

We’ve written previously about how the CEP helps high-poverty Oklahoma students and schools by allowing schools to serve free breakfast and lunch for all students. Because eligibility is determined by the percentage of students who are automatically certified for free meals, the CEP allows schools, groups of schools, or school districts to provide meals to their students without requiring time-consuming income eligibility paperwork. In the 2015-2016 school year, 184 schools in 53 districts in Oklahoma participated in CEP, providing meals to more than 66,000 students. Administrators in participating schools have uniformly praised the program’s benefits, including streamlining meal service, destigmatizing free school meals, and saving administrative time.

Proposed federal legislation could gut the Community Eligibility Provision

proposed-federal-changesFederal child nutrition programs must be reauthorized by Congress every five years. Reauthorizations provide an opportunity for federal lawmakers to improve existing nutrition programs – but they also open the door for damaging changes. A proposed House reauthorization bill, called the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 (H.R. 5003) would severely restrict districts’ ability to determine if the CEP is right for their students.

CEP eligibility is based on the percentage of students in a school, group of schools, or school district who automatically qualify for free school meals. This includes students whose families receive SNAP or TANF; students who are in foster care, runaways, or homeless; and a number of other categories. Presently, schools, groups of schools, or school districts where 40 percent or more students are automatically certified for schools meals can sign up for the CEP, depending on what administrators determine is best for their schools. The new proposal would raise the threshold to 60 percent or more students automatically certified. In Oklahoma, this would disqualify 3 of every 4 currently-participating schools, knocking 51,000 students out of the program.

How would these changes hurt Oklahoma families?

Schools participating in the CEP by definition have a high volume of students whose families are already struggling to get by. These are the same families whose schools are switching to four-day weeks, leaving families scrambling to locate both child care and additional food. They will struggle with forthcoming DHS cuts, including child care reductions and further delays in child welfare reforms. They will lose health care if Soonercare’s upcoming implosion continues as scheduled. These are many of the same families whose state Earned Income Tax Credit is now under threat. These are the last communities we should be asking to shoulder another burden.

The proposal would also reverse several other important child nutrition gains: it would require more stringent income verification process for school meals, weaken nutritional standards, and undermine improvements to WIC, which supports half of all babies in Oklahoma. The proposed changes are unnecessary and harmful. Please call on your Representatives to reject them and to protect schools’ ability to choose how to best serve their students.

Here’s how to help

Please contact your Congressional Representatives and ask them to oppose the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 (H.R. 5003) as written.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Proposed federal legislation could yank free school meals from 51,000 Oklahoma students

  1. This will be awful for so many children! My grandchildren qualify for lunches at school but I make $10 per month to much to receive foodstamps. That is before taxes so it is not even money I can use to feed them. There is other things that could be cut but food SHOULD not be one of them. Please do not take so many kids food from them.

  2. This program is necessary for so many of Oklahoma’s children. Please do not take away district’s ability to utilize this program-children should not go hungry and too many school districts are in desperate need of assistance at this time in history. Please reconsider. Thank you!

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