From a nutrition perspective, 2014 has been a good year for low-income Minnesota students. Earlier this year the Legislature passed a bill mandating the state to pay for school meals for students who qualified for “reduced-price” meals. (Previously, families paid a partial fee to cover what the USDA doesn’t pay.) This change guarantees that more low-income children will always have access to free meals at school.
The new school year will see another positive step forward through the USDA’s community eligibility program. This program, which launched in a few states in 2011, is available nationwide for the first time this fall. Community eligibility targets high-poverty schools where many students already participate in free/reduced school meals or other financial assistance programs. Through community eligibility, all students in those schools may receive free breakfast and lunch, without each individual student needing to enroll. The USDA reimburses schools based on how many students qualify as low-income based on their participation in several other income support programs. Families no longer need to complete an additional round of forms to enroll their children in free meals and schools no longer need to process these forms. This improves student access to the meals they need to succeed in school while reducing the paperwork burden for families and schools.
Over 350 Minnesota schools are now eligible to enroll in this program, which offers great promise for schools with high concentrations of low-income students. Pilot schools in other states havereported increased breakfast and lunch participation, improved academic performance, and reduced administrative costs. In some schools, these improvements have actually boosted their nutrition programs’ revenues.
Community eligibility also opens the door to improve meal programs in other ways because there’s no need for a cafeteria checkout line to ring up each individual student. For instance, some schools have struggled to get students through a breakfast line in the harried time between their arrival and the start of class. Now schools can simplify by offering food right as students enter the building or by delivering breakfast directly to the classroom. Every student can count on breakfast every day as part of their routine.
Minnesota schools will no doubt invent some creative ways to improve student health and achievement through community eligibility. We can look forward to seeing the fruits (pun intended) of this new program as students return to school.