Ben Spielberg

Serving Up Success in the Classroom

Success in the classroom starts with addressing students’ most basic needs. An option available to high-poverty schools provides students with healthy breakfast and lunch each school day, enabling schools to combat hunger and help prepare children to learn. Free school meals are available to any low-income child who fills out an application and meets certain eligibility criteria. But the application process, which some of the most vulnerable children may not complete, doesn’t make sense in communities with high rates of poverty and large shares of low-income students. Community eligibility, an option under which the whole school qualifies for free breakfast and lunches, addresses this problem. When an eligible school elects community eligibility, the school essentially applies for meals on behalf of the entire school community. This ensures that no low-income child misses out on healthy meals at school. Community eligibility benefits students in three primary ways:
  1. It supports schools’ academic goals. An estimated 16 million children live in households that struggle against hunger. Schools that implement community eligibility provide two nutritious meals per day, thus ensuring that students are better prepared to learn.
  2. It eliminates the stigma sometimes associated with free school meals. When high-poverty schools adopt community eligibility, their cafeterias stop reinforcing students’ awareness of class differences; instead, they become places in which each student, regardless of family income, receives the same treatment. School districts across the country have noted the positive impact community eligibility has had on their culture and peer-to-peer interactions.
  3. It streamlines the administrative process of school meals, freeing up lunch time for students and administrators’ time for other projects. Schools without community eligibility must process school meal applications. To submit periodic reimbursement claims, such schools also must count students who receive free or reduced-price lunch as they go through the lunch line. These application, counting, and claiming processes can be long and cumbersome for school nutrition staff. Community eligibility helps schools solve these problems. Because community eligibility schools simply tally the total number of meals served, their lunch lines move faster and children have more time to eat. And by eliminating school meal applications, community eligibility helps school nutrition staff focus on meal preparation and planning, not administrative paperwork.
Initially rolled out in 11 states over three years, community eligibility is now entering its second year of nationwide availability. More than 14,000 high-poverty schools that serve more than 6.6 million students  adopted the option last year. But that’s only about half of the eligible schools, which qualify based on their share of children who participate in SNAP (formerly food stamps) or other means-tested programs. Many more schools can take advantage of this opportunity in the coming school year if they act by August 31. We encourage these schools to adopt community eligibility because it is a proven success: schools in early adopter states have seen meal participation rise, nurse visits fall and behavior in the classroom improve. Millions more children across the country could benefit if eligible school districts take this step. To see if a school near you could benefit from this option, check out our searchable database. Our community eligibility website includes more resources, policy explanations and sharable graphics. By choosing community eligibility, we connect kids to food. And when we connect kids to food, we make it easier for them to succeed.  
Ben Spielberg is a research assistant with the federal fiscal policy division and Becca Segal is a child nutrition associate at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Becca Segal joined the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in February 2014 as the child nutrition associate. Her work focuses on improving low-income children's access to school meals. Prior to joining the Center, Segal worked at several New York City agencies including the Administration for Children’s Services and the Office of Management and Budget.

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