Community Eligibility: Setting a Place for All at the School Lunch Table

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Lavanya Mohan

There is a strong link between adequate nutrition and education. When children have enough to eat, they are more attentive in class, have better attendance, and fewer disciplinary problems. Furthermore, good nutrition improves quality of life and leads to strong long-term health, education, and economic outcomes. For low-income children, school meals are a key contributor to good nutrition. Unfortunately, not all children who qualify for free breakfast or lunch receive it.

On Tuesday, the Department of Agriculture announced plans to expand Community Eligibility, a pilot program that allows schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students in high-poverty schools. The program was created in 2010 by the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Under the law, if at least 40 percent of the students in a given school are known to qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on electronic matches with other programs that serve low-income families, (such as SNAP, TANF, or foster care services), then all students in that school are ruled eligible for free school meals. The USDA will reimburse schools for a share of all meals served based on the percentage of students who are identified as low-income by these automated matches.

Currently, Community Eligibility has been phased into 11 states. During the 2012-2013 school year, about 2,000 schools participated in the program, serving nearly 1 million children. With the expansion of Community Eligibility this July, more than 22,000 schools nationwide will be eligible to serve free breakfast and lunch to all their students—reaching nearly 9 million children.

Communities that currently participate in Community Eligibility have reacted positively. The program decreases the stigma experienced by children receiving free or reduced-price meals. Furthermore, it eases the administrative burden on schools, both in determining eligibility and in providing service. And most importantly, it ensures paperwork won’t prevent needy kids from getting food, especially when parents lose jobs or otherwise fall on hard times.

The expansion of Community Eligibility will give millions of low-income children the free nutritious meals they need to ensure positive health, education, and economic outcomes now and in the future.   

To learn more about Community Eligibility and the opportunities it presents, visit FRAC’s Community Eligibility resource page.

To learn more about other ways federal and state governments can streamline eligibility determination to create modernized benefit systems that minimize the burden on both recipients and agencies, read Moving to 21st Century Public Benefits.