A new school-meals-eligibility option authorized by Congress in 2010 is proving popular with high-poverty schools and is significantly increasing student participation in school lunch and school breakfast programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a report being released this week by two national anti-poverty advocacy groups.
Among the findings by the Washington-based Food Research Action Center and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is that schools taking part in the “community eligibility option” during the first two years of its availability boosted student participation by 13 percent in the lunch program and 25 percent in the breakfast program, while eliminating significant administrative costs.
In the first seven states to participate, more than 2,200 schools signed up, far more than the 300 over 10 years projected by the Congressional Budget Office when the law was passed.
“We had just over 300 buildings that participated in year number one,” said Brigette Hires, the assistant director for school meal programs at the Ohio Department of Education, which entered the program in the 2012-13 school year. “We were very excited about that. … We will have another 132 new ones participating in year number two.”
High-poverty schools participating in the new option serve all their students free breakfasts and lunches without individually identifying children as eligible. Using a mathematical formula, the USDA reimburses school food authorities approximately the same amount as they would have received under the existing system, but without the paperwork. All a school need do is count the total number of meals served.
The new eligibility option has been rolled out incrementally, with three states (Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan) approved for 2011-12, three more states (New York, Ohio, and West Virginia) plus the District of Columbia joining in 2012-13, and four more (Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Massachusetts) approved for the school year that has just begun.
All eligible schools in the country may participate beginning in the 2014-15 school year.
Historically, the federal school meals programs have required school food authorities to conduct parent-income surveys and identify which children met income standards to be eligible to receive free, reduced-price, or paid meals.
Administrators had to track the number of each type of meal served and would be reimbursed by the USDA accordingly, with higher payments for free and reduced-price meals. The survey paperwork tended to discourage families from enrolling, and the process of sorting out children by eligibility clogged lunch and breakfast lines.
The new eligibility option eliminates that whole process.
Instead, through a “matching program,” the school authorities determine the percentage of a school’s children who are already enrolled in other (typically more stringent) federal need-based programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or are homeless, migrant, or in Head Start or foster care.
Any school with an enrollment consisting of at least 40 percent of such “directly certified” children may take part in the new option. A district may choose to average its percentage of directly certified children over a group of schools (including all the schools in the district) in order to pull in schools that are below 40 percent.
The new designation lasts for four years at a time.
The agencies administering the local school food programs are reimbursed according to a legislative formula based on research that determined that for every 10 students directly certified, another six would have been identified as eligible through traditional surveys. Under that formula, for example, a school that has the minimum 40 percent directly certified children will be reimbursed at the free rate for 64 percent of its meals. The cost of the remaining meals must be covered by nonfederal funds.
But only schools with a directly certified rate of 62.5 percent or more will be reimbursed for 100 percent of their meals, so there is less incentive for schools to participate if they fall at the low end of the eligibility range.
Getting such schools to cover the additional cost has not been a problem for Ohio, however. According to Ms. Hires, about half the local agencies administering food programs in the first year fell short of the 100 percent reimbursement rate, although most came close. Further, she noted, even if they do not get 100 percent reimbursement, it should not be assumed that the local agencies lose money on their programs, thanks to purchasing-power efficiencies.
One of the most striking effects of the new system is the dramatic increase in the number of students receiving school breakfasts.At the start of the school day, it is hard to get children into the cafeteria before the first bell, so breakfast participation historically has been only half that of lunch. According to the report, the new option’s greater efficiencies have spurred the implementation of alternative strategies, including serving breakfast in the classroom, serving breakfast after the first period, or offering breakfasts at “grab and go” kiosks.
In fact, West Virginia specifically required schools taking advantage of the new option to implement at least one innovative breakfast strategy, thereby achieving a 10 percent increase in participation in the first year. Collectively, Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan achieved an increase of 25 percent over the first two years.
By next May, states must notify all their districts about whether they have schools that are potentially eligible to participate beginning in 2014-15. At that time, authorities may notify the state of their intent to take part.
“This was one of the easier transition-type programs to adopt,” said Ms. Hires.
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as Rollout of School Meals Option Proves Popular, Study Says