This new school meals program helps high-poverty kids and schools

Photo by Bread for the World used under a Creative Commons license
Photo by Bread for the World used under a Creative Commons license

Last spring, we reported on a powerful new tool to fight hunger in high-poverty schools. Community Eligibility, part of 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, allows certain high-poverty schools, groups of schools, or school districts to offer breakfast and lunch to all students free of charge. Recently, we with talked the Nutrition Services Directors at Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) and Shawnee Public Schools (SPS), to hear about their first year of community eligibility.

Oklahoma City Public Schools adopted community eligibility in 51 of 79 of it schools, which means that 26,000 of 44,000 students in the district receive breakfast and lunch every day, free of charge. Shawnee Public Schools has adopted community eligibility in 5 of 7 schools. In both districts, the vast majority of affected students are in elementary school, when nutrition experts say that healthy meals are crucial to physical and neurological development.

Community eligibility has had significant positive results in three areas:

  • Community eligibility saves money. When Deborah Taylor, Associate Director of Child Nutrition Services at OKCPS, came to the district last fall, she found that 40 of the district’s point-of-sale terminals, where students would swipe cards or enter their student numbers to pay for meals, were out of date and needed to be replaced. But because community eligibility provides free meals to all students, Taylor was able to simply get rid of the old systems without replacing them. At $1,000 apiece, she estimates that the move saved the district $40,000 on technology alone. With community eligibility, she says, “I get to be feeding kids, not spending money on a computer system that counts kids.”

    Furthermore, because community eligibility relies on a multiplier to determine reimbursement rates, some schools may find that adopting community eligibility would result in higher revenues than they would otherwise receive. Taylor estimates that that OKCPS will receive an additional $2.2 million in federal funding per year due to community eligibility.

  •  Community eligibility allows schools to use their staff more effectively. Previously, simply processing meal applications at OKCPS required seven employees working 50- and 60-hour weeks in the fall. With community eligibility in place, they’ve scaled down to just three employees working on lunch applications; the other employees are free to work on other tasks, such as data analysis, that had previously fallen by the wayside. Similarly, because all SPS elementary schools have implemented community eligibility, SPS only collects school meal applications from the middle school and high school. Staff who previously processed elementary school meal applications have been assigned other tasks that, in the words of SPS Nutritional Services Director Maria Isenhower, “were important but just never got done,” such as building nutritional breakdowns of the meals the schools serve.

    Community eligibility also allows cafeteria staff to focus on preparing and serving meals, rather than monitoring point-of-sale terminals. “It’s hard to find…an excellent kitchen manager who is also a good secretary,” Taylor told me. “Usually they’re mutually exclusive.”

  • Students are eating better. When schools adopt community eligibility, more students eat, and they eat better food. SPS and OKCPS report increased participation in both breakfast and lunch. This is entirely consistent with reports from other states. Furthermore, school districts that have had community eligibility for several years report reduced truancy, fewer behavioral health referrals, and better attentiveness in class.

    Eliminating transactions from the cafeteria gives kids more time to eat. In recent years, school lunch periods have shrunk at the same time that federal standards have required schools to provide healthier meals with lots of fruits and vegetables. It’s harder to snarf a salad than a slice of pizza. But because community eligibility doesn’t require kids to wait in line to pay after collecting their meal, more of the lunch period can go to – well, lunch.

[pullquote]With community eligibility, she says, ‘I get to be feeding kids, not spending money on a computer system that counts kids.'”[/pullquote]This is not to say that the transition is easy. One of the key selling points of community eligibility is that it eliminates the need to collect income paperwork, but such paperwork has long been key to a wide range of applications, from school funding mechanisms to poverty estimates. However, the USDA and US Dept. of Education have issued a variety of rules intended to address the issue. In short, bureaucratic issues shouldn’t stop schools from being able to feed their students.

Despite these advantages, school districts in Oklahoma have been slow to adopt community eligibility. Out of an estimated 200 school districts with at least one eligible school, only 18 schools or groups of schools signed on for the 2014-15 school year. However, school districts can choose whether to move a school, group of schools, or an entire district onto community eligibility by August 31. This gives parents, administrators, and educators time to evaluate their districts, and make the best decisions for their students.

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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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