374 Schools in Maryland Can Combat Child Hunger with a Successful Tool, But Are Not Yet Doing So
374 high-poverty schools in Maryland are eligible to use a powerful new tool, known as community eligibility, to increase the number of children eating school meals and reduce paperwork by providing school meals to all students free of charge. However, only six of these schools currently take advantage of Community Eligibility.
The Community Eligibility Provision allows high-poverty schools to eliminate school meal applications and offer breakfast and lunch to all of their students at no charge. Schools qualify for the Community Eligibility if 40 percent or more of their students are able to receive free or reduced lunches without having to apply because they have been identified as eligible by another program, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp program).
Community Eligibility helps ensure that low-income children, whose families often are struggling to put food on the table, have access to healthy meals at school. In Maryland, 14.4 percent of households with children lack access to adequate food. Community eligibility will help ensure that we are reaching more of our children in need of nutritious breakfast and lunch, helping them to succeed in the classroom and improve their health and long-term well-being. When a child’s basic nutritional needs are met, they are better able to pay attention in class and pose fewer disciplinary problems.
In the eleven states that offered the community eligibility provision as part of the initial roll-out, over 4,000 high-poverty schools participated. Initial results show that community eligibility is leading to more children participating in school meals, and particularly increasing the number of children eating breakfast, an underutilized program that many schools are seeking to expand. Besides expanding the number of children that are eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch, Community Eligibility also removes the stigma that may make children wary of accepting free and reduced lunches. Under Community Eligibility, free breakfast and lunch are available to all students in the school without an application.
In addition to helping reduce hunger for greater numbers of low-income students, community eligibility also helps schools and school districts streamline their operations and reduce paperwork. When more children eat, the per-meal cost of serving meals decreases. These economies of scale, combined with administrative simplifications, help to cover the cost of providing meals to students who might otherwise pay. Less paperwork frees up resources to invest in improving meal quality and increases staff time available for other educational priorities.
Adopting community eligibility can provide significant benefits not only to Maryland’s high-poverty schools, but to the many students that they serve who might otherwise struggle to get enough food to eat each day. Eligible schools will have until June 30th to decide whether they will participate in community eligibility. This is an exciting opportunity that schools in Maryland should seize. The United States Department of Agriculture has tools and guidance to help school districts determine their level of federal meal reimbursement under Community Eligibility, and in future posts we will provide more details about how schools can take advantage of Community Eligibility without jeopardizing funding from other sources, so be sure to check back here for more on how schools can ensure that all of their students’ nutritional needs are met through programs like Community Eligibility.