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A record number of poor kids are eating breakfast — thanks to a program many conservatives hate

Students choose their breakfast in the cafeteria at Bailey's Upper Elementary School in Falls Church last September. (The Washington Post)

A record number of low-income children have begun to eat breakfast at school. But the policy most credited with boosting their numbers may be on the chopping block under President Trump.

According to the latest School Breakfast Scorecard, an annual report released Tuesday by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), school breakfast participation among low-income kids grew 3.7 percent in the 2015-2016 school year. More than 12 million low-income kids now eat breakfast at school, up almost 50 percent from 10 years ago.

Advocates chalk up that growth, in large part, to the expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision, an Obama-era program that remains unpopular with many Republicans. Under CEP, schools or school districts where 40 percent of the student body directly qualifies for free meals (via food stamps or other nutrition assistance or welfare programs) may offer those meals free to all students. The school is then reimbursed at a variable rate, according to the percentage of low-income students.

Introduced as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, CEP expanded nationwide in the 2014-2015 school year. As of last year, an estimated half of all eligible districts had adopted the program.

“The community eligibility provision has created a huge new opportunity,” said Crystal Fitzsimons, FRAC’s director of school and out-of-school time programs. “It’s important both in terms of making sure breakfast is free and available to all kids, and making it easier for schools to adopt alternative models of serving breakfast.”

CEP usually comes up in discussions of the National School Lunch Program; that is, after all, the far bigger program, with 30.3 million participants. But school breakfast has always been aimed particularly at low-income students, which is why it has benefited so much from the community eligibility provision.

Without CEP, schools must collect applications and determine many low-income students' individual eligibility for free- or reduced-price meals based on family income. (In most states, the threshold for a family of four is $44,955 for reduced-price meals and $31,590 for free meals). That puts a considerable administrative burden on high-poverty schools, which may have to chase down applications and partial payments from thousands of children. On top of that, advocates say, restricting school breakfast to the poorest kids stigmatizes the meal.

CEP, on the other hand, makes breakfast a schoolwide norm, which supporters say reduces stigma and paperwork while funneling additional federal money to nutrition programs in high-poverty schools. It gives cafeterias the financial flexibility to offer alternative types of breakfasts, such as grab-and-go meals that students can eat in the classroom. It also makes sure more kids get breakfast — 9.4 percent more kids compared to control schools, according to the Department of Agriculture.

That’s significant, given the established link between school breakfast, classroom behavior and academic performance. Studies have shown that students who eat breakfast at school score better on standardized tests and skip school or are tardy less often.

“When students come to school hungry, it’s really hard for them to pay attention and learn,” said Jill Kidd, the director of nutrition services at Pueblo City Public Schools in Colorado. Her district, which is urban and low-income, has offered universal free breakfast since 1996 — operating at a considerable financial loss until CEP caught up with it.

Despite these successes, however, CEP is not universally beloved. The program has attracted particular ire from House Republicans, who attempted to reform the program in their version of last year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill. They believe CEP unfairly subsidizes the meals of kids who could afford to pay full price, at enormous cost to taxpayers, and have advocated for a 60-percent threshold to determine a school or district's eligibility. Although they were ultimately unable to raise the CEP threshold in the last Congress, they now have a Republican president, in addition to a congressional majority.

“We are arguing that Congress should address CEP before passing any child nutrition reauthorization bill,” Daren Bakst, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said in an email. He has previously described CEP as “welfare for kids who come from the middle class.”

For now, however, FRAC and its allies remain enthusiastic about CEP and school breakfast. To Fitzsimons, the rising numbers speak for themselves.

“The big picture is that participation continues to grow among low-income kids,” she said. “We remain hopeful about this.”

Update: This post originally said that schools are eligible for CEP when 40 percent of their students qualify for free meals according to family income. They actually qualify via participation in food stamps or other nutrition assistance programs. We regret the error.

More from Wonkblog:

How our schools fail poor kids before they even arrive for class

Obama’s plan to give free lunches to millions more kids

The science of skipping breakfast: How government nutritionists may have gotten it wrong