By David Gray
Nearly 368,000 Louisiana students could eat two meals each day at no charge if school districts participate in a new universal meals program. The Community Eligibility Provision is designed to remove cumbersome qualification barriers in the school breakfast and lunch programs. That means fewer kids will risk going hungry in school, including those whose parents earn as little as $5 over the monthly income cutoff.
Across Louisiana, 849 schools with nearly 368,000 students qualify for the program, according to LBP analysis of spring 2014 enrollment data from the state Department of Education. But as of last week, only eight school districts had signed up for full implementation (meaning all schools in the district participate), while another three districts are signed up for partial participation.
The reasons for the delay vary. Part of it is due to poor guidance from the state Department of Education, which did not finalize enrollment guidelines until July 31 – a full month after the original application deadline of June 30. This prompted a letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture urging the state to ensure schools have enough time to opt-in to the program before the start of the new school year, and eventually the deadline was extended to August 31 to give more schools time to enroll.
Other school districts may be holding off because of concerns about how participating in the program would affect other federal funding, particularly Title 1 funds that support at-risk and low-income students. In the past, most Title 1 dollars were allocated to schools based on how many students received free and reduced-priced meals. But if everyone in a district is eligible to eat at no cost, schools have to look for other ways to make that calculation.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has noted, the adoption of Community Eligibility will have no effect on the amount of Title 1 grants a state or school district can receive, though it can have a “major impact on … allocations among individual schools within districts.”
Congress established Community Eligibility as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to ensure every child can learn without hunger pains and headaches, which make it difficult for kids to concentrate in class.
It works like this: Any school (or cluster of schools) where at least 40 percent of students automatically qualify for free meals is eligible for Community Eligibility. That includes student in foster care or a Head Start program; whose family is homeless or migrant; or who live in families that receive food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance, or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations benefits.
Schools (and school districts) that participate in the program can serve meals at no charge to all their students, regardless of income, freeing them from the administrative hassle of having to determine which students qualify for free or reduced-price meals and which ones are required to pay. This, in turn, means schools may have more time and money to focus on tasks that improve students test scores, such as teacher workshops and after-school tutoring.
Early indications are that the program is a big success. Community Eligibility was piloted in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan during the 2011-12 school year. The average daily lunch participation rate for schools that opted-in to Community Eligibility rose by 13 percent over two years, and the average daily breakfast participation rate rose by 25 percent.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, where nearly 42,000 students will benefit from Community Eligibility, Nutrition Director Nadine Mann told The Advocate that participation is estimated to save students’ families between $122 and $744 each year, while freeing school district employees from of the administrative headache of collecting income data and deciding which students are required to pay for their meals.
The state Department of Education published a list of eligible schools meeting these criteria. In some instances, the entire school district qualifies for Community Eligibility.
Schools and districts that want to know how the program would affect their finances can use a monthly federal reimbursement estimator created by the USDA. Additionally, the state Department of Education developed new funding formulas for schools participating in programs that relied on school meal data.
While every state stands to benefit from this Community Eligibility, Louisiana needs it more than most. More than 300,000 Louisiana children lived below the federal poverty line last year, and thousands of others live just above the poverty line yet struggle to make ends meet and put healthy meals on the table. These factors – poverty and poor nutrition – contribute to a wide range of physical and behavioral health problems for children.
Taking advantage of this opportunity would save money for many families and improve students’ health. More importantly, it will help Louisiana kids focus in the classroom. Improving students’ academic achievement ultimately benefits Louisiana’s economy, as there is a strong relationship between median wages and a state’s high school and college graduation rates.
But time is running out. School has already started, and districts have less than two weeks to decide whether to participate. School boards and the state Department of Education should act quickly and responsibly to take advantage of Community Eligibility.