Back in September, Marketplace reported that children at a New Jersey elementary school were not served lunch because their school lunch accounts were empty of funds. According to one parent, "There was a room full of kids who were not fed. Some of them did qualify for reduced lunch, which amounted to 40-cents per meal. The principle then informed us that she spoke to parents on the first day of school and that it was their responsibility to make sure their kids are fed." The school district had apparently decided that it could not afford to continue providing its back up meal to kids because they were already running a $200,000 deficit in their lunch program. As Marketplace noted, “In many other states, debt collectors are hired to go after parents with unpaid bills. There is even a debt collection agency that specializes in collecting lunch debt from parents.”
Debt collectors going after parents for lunch money? First graders going without food? This is a mess. It is bad for kids be denied food – health-wise, academically, psychologically, any way you slice it. And yes, while there may indeed be some parents out there who can afford to pay for their children’s lunches and are simply neglecting to do so, the reality is that the cost of kids’ lunches is a real financial burden for many lower-income families.
For example, I recently spoke with a mother of four in California about her experiences with various public assistance programs. She told me the only way her SNAP (food stamps) allotment for the family stretches the full month is because her kids are able to get meals at school. During the summer when her kids are out of school, she has to cut portions and scrounge to make sure everyone has enough to eat.
But there’s meaningful change on the horizon.
Starting with the coming 2014-2015 academic year, more than 25,000 U.S. schools will be able to expand their school meal programs to serve food to all students for free through an option called “community eligibility.” Eligible schools are those with a high percentage of students living in poverty – researchers have made the case that it improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the program to make the determination of need at the school level rather than on a student-by-student basis.
Barbara Sard of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities summarizes the rationale for the program: “Community eligibility streamlines program operations, freeing up staff time and resources to improve the quality of meals served or to focus on other education priorities. Most important, in school districts that have already adopted community eligibility, more children eat breakfast and lunch at school. As a result, community eligibility is helping to address child hunger in those areas.”
A simple policy change that will help more hungry kids eat? Sounds great. Where do we sign up?
Community eligibility is new to most states (although 4,000 high-poverty schools have already been participating) so the task now is to ensure that eligible schools and districts know about the change and move to implement it for the coming school year. Schools have until June 30 to make a decision about whether they’ll participate.
And that New Jersey school Marketplace featured? The majority of schools in that district are going to qualify for community eligibility. Here’s hoping school officials will consider implementing this simple mechanism to ensure incidents like the one that happened last fall don’t happen again.
To learn more about community eligibility and to find out if it will be an option in your region or school district, check out this map from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. You can also find an implementation guide and sample materials to use in reaching out to school districts on the Food Research and Action Center’s website. Contact Zoe Neuberger at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or with any questions.