Only 51.5% of school districts nationwide that qualify currently take advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which allows schools in low-income areas with at least 45% of students who qualify for free meals an alternative approach for operating school meal programs, said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He explained Dec. 9 that the provision allows these schools to provide free meals to all students based on means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) and the Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families, rather than collecting applications from families for free and reduced price meals.
While the program, which became available nationwide for the first time this year, is aimed at simplifying schools reporting burden and providing more children who need it with nutritious breakfast and lunch, some schools are not participating because they fear doing so will inadvertently jeopardize access to other much needed federal and state funds, Concannon said.
Many schools in low-income neighborhoods use applications and data collected for free and reduced meals to determine their eligibility for financial aid under Title 1, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which they use to hire extra teachers and buy materials to meet basic education standards.
Providing free meals does not invalidate Title 1 funds
But Concannon said the two programs are not related and accepting funds for all students to eat does not invalidate schools’ eligibility for Title 1 funds. The schools simply need to use a different method to measure their student populations’ economic status.
“We have worked closely with schools to make sure this does not adversely, inadvertently reduce their Title 1 funds,” said Concannon, who hopes currently non-participating schools that are eligible will see that schools that participate this year do not have diminished Title 1 funds.
Other schools that qualify for the program did not participate this year because the organizations with which they contract to provide meals either were not ready to move forward or had concerns about the program, Concannon said.
Again, he encourages those schools and organizations to contact currently participating schools to hear first-hand how they implemented the program and how it has benefitted children.
“We are pleased that 51% plus schools have adopted [the program] this year,” and expect “we will have even more schools joining us” next year, Concannon said.
Free meals offer many benefits
He emphasized there are many reasons to participate including higher attendance rates, less absenteeism, fewer visits to the school nurse’s office, fewer instances of children being distracted in the classroom because they are hungry and an upward trend in standardized tests scores once the programs are in place and providing meals consistently over the long-term.
A recently published study confirms that providing free breakfast can boost attendance, reduce tardies and improve academic outcomes. (Read more about the study’s findings HERE.)
Likewise, improved standardized test scores at Harlan County Public Schools in Kentucky, which participates in the program, show that providing free meals can improve academic performance.
“This is our fourth year providing free breakfast and lunch and one thing that really stands out with us is in [the] 2011-2012 [school year] we ranked in the 14th percentile in standardized test scores. In 2012-2013, we moved up to the 41st percentile and last year, 2013-2014, we moved up to the 55th percentile. So, you can see that having nutritional food offered to all students is improving test scores,” said Jack Miniard, director of food services at Harlan County Public Schools.
“It has helped us big time,” he added. “For a hungry kid it is really hard to sit in a classroom and do their best. This may be one of the only meals those children get per day and it really helps the children excel and succeed in their school work.”
Michael Hanson, superintendent at Fresno Unified School District in California, which also participates in the free meal program, added that “concentrated education” is one of the biggest tools communities have to eliminate concentrated poverty, but education is not possible if children are too hungry to learn.
He noted the free meal program for all children also eliminated a stigma some children might feel about taking a free lunch, and it has generated general interest in students to learn more about food and eating healthy, which will help address the nation’s obesity problem.
He encouraged non-participating schools that are eligible to take part in the program, which he said, “is a clear, right and moral thing to do.”
He added: “This shouldn’t be a question of whether you are or will do it. Rather, you should be considering what your community would be saying to you for not doing it.”