Free Lunch for All Hungry Students

Blog Post
Aug. 12, 2015

As a teacher, I am used to hearing the question “Miss Gillette, can I have two breakfasts?” from my first grade students. At our school, all children receive free lunch and breakfast. For many of my students, these are the only meals that they eat throughout the day, and they want to save some of the food to take home, where they aren’t always sure they will be eating.

We all know what it feels like to be hungry: you can’t concentrate and your hunger is what consumes your mind. Now imagine you are a child in a school trying to learn on an empty stomach. Not surprisingly, it can be difficult for them to engage in learning.

To address the problem of child hunger, most schools offer free and reduced-price meal programs to qualifying students. Although these programs exist, there are some barriers to their effectiveness. Some kids are hesitant to participate in the programs, feeling embarrassed that they are different from their peers. There can be a stigma attached to receiving free and reduced lunch, especially in the upper grades, when peer pressure can make kids reluctant to accepting free meals. In some cases, children may have to go to alternate locations in the school to receive a free meal, separating them from their peers.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) provides a solution to child hunger at school and the stigma that comes along with not being able to afford to buy or bring lunch. It enables schools and school districts that have more than 40 percent of students automatically eligible for free meals because they have been identified by another public benefit program to provide free lunch and breakfast to all students. The program uses data from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)  and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to determine a school district’s eligibility, instead of paperwork that can be cumbersome for both parents and administrators. By providing meals to all students free of charge, the program removes the uneasiness that can come with receiving these meals. Most importantly, it ensures that any child who is hungry is able to have a healthy meal without being singled out from their peers, setting them up for a more successful day of learning.

The Community Eligibility Program began in 2011, and expanded from eleven states to being available nationwide. In the 2014-2015 school year, nearly 14,000 schools in more than 2,000 local educational agencies (LEAs) and served more than 6.4 million children. The schools and districts that have taken advantage of the program have seen a 25 percent increase in breakfast participation and 13 percent increase in lunch participation by students.

The federal government's Food and Nutrition Service at the USDA wants to build on this significant response and increase the number of children who participate nationwide. There are certain districts that have not taken advantage of the program to the extent that they could. For example, in Hillsborough County, Florida where nearly 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, not a single school participated in the 2014-2015 school year. In fact, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Community Eligibility Database, only 559 of more than 3,000 eligible schools in Florida participate. For schools in districts such as Hillsborough County, the CEP could be an incredible tool to reduce student hunger and push student success in the classroom. Further, it would reduce the administrative burden that parents, schools, and districts face when processing applications for free and reduced-price meals.

This year the deadline for applications to the Community Eligibility Program is August 31. The deadline was extended to ensure that schools and districts have sufficient time to apply for the program, and serve the maximum number of students possible.

As I saw in my classroom, when everyone gets free lunch and breakfast, students eat if they’re hungry, and if not they don’t. There is no embarrassment of leaving the room to eat elsewhere while your friends socialize and no differentiation between students who receive free lunch and those who don’t. The Community Eligibility Program is a way to even the playing field and make sure that all kids who come to school are well fed, ready to learn and able to fully focus on school.

*This post was edited to make a correction at 3:54 PM on August 13, 2015. (Baltimore actually adopted community eligibility at the very end of the 2014-2015 school year. The CBPP database has not yet been updated to reflect this positive step in Baltimore.)"