Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday March 3rd, 2015, 11:58am

Over 1,000 IL Schools Joined Federal Free Meal Program This Year

More than 14,000 high-poverty schools nationwide -- including over 1,000 in Illinois -- adopted a new federal program this academic year aimed at improving access to free meals for students, according to a new analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, enables qualifying high-poverty schools to serve no-cost breakfast and lunches to all students. The program, designed to make school meal operations more efficient and help reduce hunger, eliminates the need for schools to collect household applications to determine which students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

Community eligibility, which began as a pilot program in 11 states, including Illinois, became an option for qualifying schools nationwide this academic year. Illinois was among three states, allong with Kentucky and Michigan, to roll out community eligibility in some schools in the 2011-2012 academic year.

"Community eligibility not only reduces redundant paperwork at high-poverty schools but also makes possible huge gains in meeting vulnerable children's nutritional needs by providing them with a healthy breakfast and lunch at school each day," CPBB's report reads. "Reliable access to healthy meals, in turn, better prepares students to learn. The popularity of community eligibility in its first year of nationwide implementation speaks to schools' desire to improve access to healthy meals while reducing red tape, as well as to the option's sound design."

Under the program, participating schools get federal reimbursements for student meals. The reimbursement rates are determined by a formula based on the number of "identified students" at a school, or those who automatically qualify for no-cost school meals because they are homeless, for example, or live in households enrolled in the federal Temporary Assistance for Working Families (TANF) program or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Schools in which "identified students" make up at least 40 percent of the student population qualify for CEP. 

David Lloyd, director of the Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children, called community eligibility a "powerful tool to address child hunger in the most high-poverty schools."

"It helps streamline the administrative burden that schools have to otherwise go through, and it allows more kids to get nutrition that they urgently need to make sure that they can learn at school," he said. "It's a vital program. It was great that Illinois could be one of the pilot states, and we hope that more and more eligible districts and schools take up this option."

Fourty-five percent of the nation's CEP-eligible schools implemented the program this year. The more than 14,000 participating schools collectively serve 6 million children, according to CBPP's report. At the national level, nearly 2,220 school districts, representing 32 percent of those eligible for CEP, are currently offering community eligibility in some or all of their schools.

In Illinois, 1,041 out of 1,877 CEP-eligible schools took up the option this year, including those in Carbondale Elementary School District 95, the City of Chicago School District 299, Dekalb Community Unit School District 428, Peoria Public Schools District 150 and Springfield School District 186, to name a few. That works out to be a 55 percent take-up rate among CEP-eligible Illinois schools.

The analysis showed Illinois had 445 CEP-eligible school districts this year, and 131 of them, or 29 percent, opted to use community eligibility. Some larger Illinois school districts, like the Chicago Public Schools, have implemented the program, which mostly explains the higher take-up rates among schools than districts. 

More than 552,700 Illinois students attend schools participating in community eligibility this year, the report showed. That's up from 55,421 Illinois students receiving meals under the program in the 2011-2012 academic year, when community eligibility first started in the state.

"We have a long ways to go in terms of all the eligible districts and schools adopting community eligibility, but Illinois has made quite a bit of progress since the pilot was launched," Lloyd noted.

CBPP's report, designed to spread awareness about the new option and where it could be expanded, includes a searchable database listing CEP-eligible schools in Illinois and other states as well as information on their community eligibility offerings. It also includes an interactive map with state-specific CEP information. 

"[Community eligibility] is a concrete step that policymakers can take to reduce food insecurity and other poverty-related hardships among children in areas of concentrated poverty," the report reads. "The fact that half of eligible schools have adopted community eligibility in its first year of nationwide implementation demonstrates its appeal. As school districts better understand its administrative simplifications and benefits for our nation's poorest students, more schools will likely adopt community eligibility."

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