This school year every student in more than 1,000 Louisiana schools – including almost all of the highest-poverty schools in the state – will walk into the lunchroom knowing that there is a hot, nutritious meal waiting for them regardless of their family’s financial circumstances. That’s because a record number of Louisiana schools are participating in a federal program that allows some schools or districts with high levels of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch to feed all of their students without charging them for meals.
New data from the Louisiana Department of Education shows that more than 90 percent of eligible schools – enrolling 479,000 students – are taking advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of federal law.1 Nationally, only 55 percent of eligible schools were participating in the program as of the 2016-17 school year.2
This enrollment landmark comes after outreach efforts led by the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, the National Governors Association and Share Our Strength, along with school district superintendents, principals and nutritionists.
The number of participating schools has tripled since 2014-15, when the program first became available in Louisiana. Since the 2017-18 school year alone, increased school participation has led to 15,500 additional children being served free and healthy meals each day.
This is a big deal in a state where two-thirds of all public school students qualify as economically disadvantaged. Due to Louisiana’s extraordinarily high child poverty rate (28 percent of the state’s children lived below the federal poverty line in 2017—roughly 310,000 kids)3 many schools in the state qualify for CEP funding.
Schools are eligible for CEP when 40 percent of their students are directly identified as eligible for free lunch through their participation in another public assistance program or because they are homeless or in foster care.4 The state Department of Education estimates that 1,093 schools—roughly 60 percent of all Louisiana K-12 schools, public and private—met the Community Eligibility threshold in the 2018-19 school year.
Federal law allows districts to group schools together to maximize CEP participation. Using this option, districts can link schools near the eligibility threshold with schools well over the threshold, ensuring that the greatest number of students can receive free meals through the CEP program.
The majority of Louisiana students that would qualify for free or reduced lunch based on their family’s income or participation in other public assistance programs already attend CEP schools. By “grouping” schools to maximize enrollment, districts are able to extend community eligibility to cover even more students while easing the paperwork burden on schools and families.
Community eligibility not only offers broader access to school meals, it also lessens the social stigma of poverty. Giving every student equal access to the same school meals means those meals are not perceived as being “only for the poor kids.” Too often, school lunch participation separates students whose families have limited means from students from wealthier families. When schools with a minority of students eligible for free and reduced lunch adopt the community eligibility provision, the lunchrooms in those schools become less divided by wealth and all of the schools’ families benefit from easier access to healthy meals.
Community eligibility also helps insulate students from sudden changes in their family’s economic fortunes. Many parents are unaware that they can register their children for free and reduced lunch at any point in the school year. When a family faces job loss or other financial calamity, children in non-CEP schools often accrue debt for unpaid school meals even though their family’s income would qualify them for free or reduced-price lunch. Community eligibility, however, eliminates the need for families to report their financial status at the beginning of the school year or disclose mid-year changes in their income. As a result, parents whose kids attend CEP schools can be sure that even when their family’s income takes a hit during the school year, their children will continue to eat healthy, balanced meals in school.
The reduced reporting burden under CEP also frees school nutritionists from substantial paperwork requirements. Since all students’ meals are covered under community eligibility, school food-service workers are not required to categorize every meal served as either free, reduced price, or full price, nor do they have to maintain records of individual family eligibility. Instead, they can focus on their core job: preparing meals that ensure that all members of the school community have the nutrition they need to fuel their educations and lead active, healthy lives.
While Louisiana has been successful overall in encouraging CEP participation, there are still a few holdouts. None of the three eligible schools in Jackson Parish or the 14 eligible schools in St. Tammany Parish – including seven St. Tammany schools with greater than 50 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch – have enrolled in the program. In Jefferson Parish, all elementary schools are participating but nearly all middle schools and high schools are excluded.
Overall, Louisiana can boast a substantially more generous and equitable lunch program in schools with the greatest need than it offered five years ago, to the benefit of all its students.
–By Danny Mintz