Federal

Schools Weigh Expanding Free Meals to All Students

By Evie Blad — June 30, 2014 4 min read
Students eat lunch at Barre Town Elementary School last September in Barre Town, Vt. Vermont schools were among those that opted into a new federal provision this school year that allows them to provide free meals to all students regardless of family income.
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Schools will have more time to decide if they want to take advantage of a new federal provision that would allow them to provide free meals to all students after the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended the deadline to opt in from June 30 to Aug. 31.

The extra time will allow district leaders and nutrition staff members to weigh the benefits of participation in what is known as the community-eligibility provision and to prepare for the transition, Cynthia Long, the USDA’s deputy administrator for child-nutrition programs, wrote in a June 12 letter to state nutrition directors.

The extension comes as some cities are wavering on whether to take advantage of the new opportunity to expand their free meals programs. Notably, members of New York’s city council had pushed to expand universal free meals to all of the city’s schools through the community-eligibility provision. But a budget compromise last week with Mayor Bill de Blasio instead included a plan to pilot universal free meals in all the district’s middle schools.

Federal officials hope to win over more districts as the new deadline nears.

“Reaching our most vulnerable students through [the community-eligibility provision] provides equal access to nutritious meals while also lowering administrative costs for schools,” Ms. Long wrote

The provision, created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, will allow high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students without requiring families to file individual applications. The provision will be available nationwide for the first time in 2014-15.

Over the past three years, 4,000 schools in 10 states and the District of Columbia have piloted the program. Advocates say eliminating the barrier of applying helps drive up participation by removing the federal lunch program’s stigma for students.

How It Works

While cities like Boston and Detroit have embraced the new option, the delay in signing on to the provision in some other districts can be attributed to the administrative and mathematical gymnastics necessary to determine whether participation is financially feasible.

A school or a school system qualifies for community eligibility if at least 40 percent of its enrollment is made up of “identified students.” Such students include those who are cleared to take part in the subsidized meals programs without applications because they live in households that participate in other federal income-based programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Other identified students are children who are participating in Head Start, living in foster care, homeless, or migrant.

Districts also can clump several schools together and consider their aggregate population for the sake of eligibility.

While participating schools will provide free meals to all students, the USDA will only provide full meal reimbursements equivalent to the number of directly certified children multiplied by 1.6. The rest of the meals will receive the smaller subsidies provided for fully paid meals under the traditional payment model.

That means some schools that qualify for community eligibility might struggle to make it work financially, food-service directors who piloted the program said in a webinar hosted last year by the Food Research and Action Center, or FRAC, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Title I Concerns

Some districts have resisted the community-eligibility provision out of concern for potential effects on distributions of Title I aid, which is based on the income surveys that are used to qualify students for the meals programs.

That concerned officials in the 1.1 million-student New York City system. The city saw a 50 percent increase in breakfast consumption when it started a free program in some schools, according to a resolution sponsored by four city council members, who hoped to see similar results with districtwide free lunches. The city estimates the compromised middle school plan will feed approximately 170,000 students in about 290 schools.

If a district adopts the free-meals option only in some of its schools, it will create an apples-to-oranges situation, making it harder to rank the schools’ poverty levels to determine how Title I funding should be allocated within the school system.

To address such concerns, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance in January explaining how schools can compare identified-student data in some schools to traditional school lunch data in others. And some districts, such as Detroit, have created alternative income forms that aren’t linked to their meals programs to ensure they have accurate information for all their students.

Despite some hurdles, anti-hunger groups have encouraged districts to opt in to community eligibility.

In an October 2013 report, FRAC assessed the provision’s impact in the early pilot states of Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan. In schools that had been participating in community eligibility for two years, average daily lunch participation rose by 13 percent, from 69 percent in October 2010 to 78 percent in October 2012, the organization found. Average breakfast participation increased from 44 percent to 56 percent over the same period.

“Higher participation in school meals means children can concentrate on their lessons and not on their empty bellies,” Madeleine Levin, a senior policy analyst at FRAC, said when the report was released.

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Deadline Extended for New School Meals Option

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