School officials say the Community Eligibility Program for providing students with free lunch and breakfast has been a resounding success. It has reduced paperwork, provided more students with healthy meals and kept more money in the hands of families.
But legislation introduced by Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita would cut back on the program, eliminating the option for over 18,000 schools and hundreds of thousands of children nationwide, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In Indiana, at least 120 schools serving 58,000 students – nearly half the schools and students that currently participate – could be bounced out of the program.
Community Eligibility was created by a 2010 reauthorization of the federal school nutrition law and became available to schools nationwide in 2014-15. It enables high-poverty schools and school districts to offer free meals to all their students without forcing families to show they meet income requirements.
The law says schools and districts are eligible if at least 40 percent of their students are directly certified as eligible for free school meals; that typically means their families participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) or the students are homeless or in foster care.
Under Rokita’s proposal, that threshold would rise to 60 percent.
Rokita said in a news release that his plan would improve Community Eligibility “by targeting assistance to those most in need while continuing to provide all eligible students access to healthy meals.” But it’s important to note that many more students qualify by family income for free or reduced-price meals than are directly certified for eligibility.
In Fort Wayne Community Schools, for example, 66.5 percent of students qualify for meal assistance but only 44.4 percent of students are directly certified, said district spokeswoman Krista Stockman
The biggest impact in Indiana would be in Fort Wayne, South Bend, Hammond, Michigan City and Indianapolis Wayne Township schools, all of which would have to suspend district-wide participation in the program. In Fort Wayne, all 45 elementary schools and middle schools have made use of the program for the past two years but would no longer be able to participate.
Stockman said Community Eligibility helps families whose incomes fall just above the guidelines for meal subsidies but still struggle to pay full price. And it helps schools by taking away the requirement that they determine who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals and track who has paid and who hasn’t.
“It’s hard to understand how anyone could find fault with it,” she said. “It makes sure students are eating, it gives money back to families and it helps schools run more efficiently.”
Rokita’s proposal would save an estimated $1.6 billion over 10 years, money he wants to invest in other aspects of federal lunch programs, such as summer meals and breakfast reimbursement rates. But Jared Bernstein and Ben Spielberg of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argue in the Washington Post that those savings wouldn’t come close to offsetting the administrative burden that would be added for local schools.
And as Melinda D. Anderson reports in the Atlantic, Community Eligibility addresses another serious concern for educators: The fact that some qualifying families and students won’t sign up for free or reduced-price meals because of the stigma associated with needing assistance.
The House Education and Workforce Committee is scheduled to consider Rokita’s proposal today. Meanwhile, teachers, school administrators and nutrition staff are pushing back against the legislation.
“We’re trying to raise awareness of it locally so our parents know about this,” said Stockman, the Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman. “We can speak up, but if our parents speak up, that is much more powerful.”