New Program Brings More Healthy Meals to High Poverty Schools

It is an unusual pairing of words: food secure. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this means to “have access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”

Unfortunately, one-fifth of U.S. households with children are classified as “food insecure.” This means millions of children are not getting the food they need to bring their A Game to the classroom.

The reasons are many: homelessness, poverty, unemployment, or, simply, the family breadwinner does not earn a living wage. Even when schools offer free and reduced-price meals, many eligible students do not participate due to their parents’ confusion over the application process or embarrassment in accepting a government handout.

“Because of shame or lack of understanding about the school meals program, parents are not filling out the application to have their child receive a free meal,” says Jim Bender, executive director of the NEA Health Information Network (NEA-HIN). “We have heard from NEA members that students are showing up to school without food and are unable to pay for their breakfast or lunch.”

That will change this fall when the food security of children at thousands of schools nationwide gets a boost due to a new federal program affiliated with the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). Named the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), it allows local educational agencies (LEAs) and high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students at a school through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

Consequently, this will eliminate long lines at cashiers, the traditional student-by-student application process, and the stigma associated with only providing free meals to “poor kids.”

“The CEP provides every child at eligible schools, regardless of their status, with a healthy meal,” says Bender.  “We have seen that when students are offered a free school breakfast and lunch, without the stigma, they participate more and reap the benefits of a healthy meal.”

To be eligible, LEAs and/or schools must:

  • Meet a minimum level (40%) of identified students for free meals in the year prior to implementing the CEP.
  • Agree to serve free lunches and breakfasts to all students.
  • Not collect free and reduced price applications from households in participating schools.
  • Agree to cover with non-federal funds any costs of providing free meals to all students above amounts provided in federal assistance.

Instead of using individual applications filled out by parents and processed by clerical and food service workers, states will tabulate information from other means-tested programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families. If certain thresholds are met, all students at eligible schools can receive free meals.

“Due to the economy and low wage jobs, working families are having difficulty putting food on the table,” says Bender. “Food service workers often dip into their own pockets to buy students meals and some districts have amassed a huge financial loss from unpaid lunches. The CEP will alleviate some of this.”

To qualify in time for the new school year, district officials must decide by June 30 whether to enroll some or all district schools in the CEP. May 1 was the deadline for states to release data indicating which schools are eligible for the program.

In 2011, the HHFKA required the CEP to be phased in over three years using pilot states before going nationwide. Last year, the CEP was available in 600 LEAs and 4,000 schools in the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia.

By participating in the CEP, many of the pilot schools have been able to hire more food service workers as well as give current staff more hours in the cafeteria. Also, food service workers do not have to collect meal payments from students, conduct verifications, or follow up on unpaid meal charges with parents.

“Instead of focusing on collecting paperwork, there is more time for food service workers to do more scratch-cooking as opposed to serving frozen or pre-made foods,” Bender says.

At Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Georgia, the CEP was implemented in 2013.

“The program eliminated loads of paperwork and saved our office workers a lot of time so they could take care of other school business,” says Ellen Peek, a food service worker at Kelley Lake for 17 years. “We’ve also seen an increase in the number of students eating breakfast and lunch.”

“I wonder why we didn’t have this program before,” Peek added.