Why Community Eligibility Raises the Bar for School Food

  • September 8, 2015
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Five years ago, Janet Poppendieck spent hours in schools researching their school meal programs in preparation for her book “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.” The book was published leading up to passage of 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which raised standards for school meals across the country.

Since then, Poppendieck has been observing how HHFKA has been rolling out. She hears regularly from schools that are not only meeting the new standards but are rising to the occasion and are offering fresh, healthy meals to students.

Poppendieck contributes a large part of the success of the new standards to theCommunity Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools that meet a threshold of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals to offer free meals to all students.

CEP not only reduces the burden of paperwork on parents and schools to determine which students receive free or reduced-price lunch, it also removes the stigma. “We talk a lot about the stigma of the kids who are getting free food,” said Poppendieck. “That stigma crosses over and affects the food. The stigma is rooted in the belief that this is food for poor kids. Community eligibility does reduce that contamination and increases participation as we would expect it to. When the meal has a more positive reputation, more people want to participate. This has the makings of a much better situation.”

During the 2014-2015 school year, more than 13,000 schools participated in CEP, according to data from Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). More than 6.4 million students attend — and receive free meals, no questions asked — at those schools. Schools are reimbursed a percentage of meals served at the free rate and at the paid rate — depending on how many identified students they have.

One district participating is Detroit Public Schools, and Betti Wiggins, the executive director of the district’s Office of School Nutrition, told Poppendieck it’s been much easier to incorporate fresh food since the start of community eligibility. She said the money she saves on not having to deal with testing for individual eligibility and paperwork means she can devote more resources to the food itself.

And that’s just one example of the good community eligibility can bring, Poppendieck said. It represents a change in thinking about school food and about not thinking of students as customers. “I still believe that school meals should be part of the school day,” she said. “We shouldn’t be selling them food; we should be serving them food as part of their educational experience.”

This year congress is reauthorizing HHFKA. We need to make sure that the health promoting provisions of HHFKA, including the Community Eligibility Provision, stay in place, and continue to serve students across the country. Please help us support healthy students by asking Congress to pass a strong and health-promoting child nutrition bill. We’ve made it easy for you to send a letter to your Congressional representatives by simply entering your ZIP code via the following link. You can use or revise the templated letter that we’ve created, or write your own. Start your letter here.