Schools are supposed to help kids build character, socialize, and learn critical thinking and academic content. But we also ask schools to do a lot more: to offer extracurricular activities, serve as community centers and feed our children. Particularly in low-income areas, where kids come to school with a variety of disadvantages, the successful completion of these varied tasks can require Herculean efforts.
That’s why we should celebrate initiatives that ease the burden on low-income schools. The Community Eligibility Provision, enacted in 2010, does just that; the program simplifies the school meal process and helps ensure that kids have something to eat during the school day, all at very little cost.
Some children in low-income households qualify automatically to receive free or reduced-price meals because of homelessness, participation in Head Start, or receipt of safety-net benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But other children need to apply for this benefit, and, as you might imagine, some of the neediest students fall through the cracks. The application process creates large amounts of paperwork for school staff members, who must not only process school meal applications, but also, if they want their school to be reimbursed for meals, track who is in which eligibility category during lunchtime.
Community eligibility solves this problem for high-poverty schools. Any school that has an Identified Student Percentage (ISP) of 40 percent – that is, any school in which 40 percent of the students automatically qualify for free or reduced-price lunch through enrollment in other programs – can offer free school meals to all of its students. Participating schools get reimbursed based on student needs; schools with higher ISPs receive higher reimbursements. In other words, community eligibility cuts through bureaucracy by eliminating the application and verification processes and substantially simplifying reimbursements, all of which would otherwise divert school officials’ attention away from providing quality meals.
Yet a new proposal by congressional conservatives would restrict community eligibility, substantially increasing administrative burdens in more than 7,000 schools and threatening 3.4 million students’ access to school meals. For no good reason that we can see, lawmakers from the Education and the Workforce Committee may vote soon to raise the ISP threshold from 40 percent to 60 percent. Because ISP numbers don’t capture low-income students who must typically apply for free or reduced-price meals, this threshold would render all but the highest-poverty schools (generally those in which more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals) ineligible for community eligibility.
Raising the threshold would save a little bit of money, as fewer students would qualify for free school meals, but the overall savings of about $1.6 billion over 10 years wouldn’t come close to offsetting the administrative burden, increased social stigma for low-income students, and negative health and academic effects it could create.
House Republicans propose redirecting these savings to summer food programs for poor students and a higher reimbursement rate for the school breakfast program. Good ideas, for sure, but why pit an important program, one that school officials absolutely love, against these other worthy objectives? Instead, we should raise the money necessary (a small amount) to make sure students have breakfasts and lunches during both the school year and the summer.
Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) has said that “providing children access to nutritious meals is a priority we all share.” Republicans also have long argued that there’s far too much government bureaucracy, and that they view their role as cutting red tape; in fact, in the very same bill in which they’re proposing unnecessary modifications to community eligibility, they argue that they want to reduce “administrative challenges for school lunch officials.”
If Kline and his colleagues really mean what they say, they should oppose this harsh proposal.