The rationale for the program is fairly straightforward. CEP, now in its second year of nationwide availability, allows high-poverty schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost, instead of collecting individual applications for free or reduced-price meals for students who qualify based on family income. Whether a school is eligible for the provision is based on data illustrating how many children are food insecure, whether they live in households that receive food stamps, live in foster care, are homeless, or other criteria that identify them as part of a food-vulnerable group. Under the program, a school district, group of schools, or single school with 40 percent or more “identified students”—those who automatically qualify for free school meals because they fall within the prior special classification—is eligible to adopt community eligibility. The House bill would raise the eligibility threshold to 60 percent, forcing thousands of high-poverty schools nationally to rollback school meals.
Wiggins said the program allows districts like hers to feed more hungry kids. “In income-insecure households, the first item to be reduced is food, in both quantity and quality,” she said. Since CEP, Detroit has experienced an average daily participation increase of 22 percent across the district. She anticipates that with the higher eligibility limit almost 8,000 fewer breakfasts and about 9,300 fewer lunches would be served to students each day. This represents a projected 40 percent drop in eligible high-school students who will abandon school meals, Wiggins said, because of the “consequential identification” of being a free-lunch student. Additionally, CEP reduces administrative costs associated with processing school meals applications. Wiggins said the cost of printing, distributing, and processing school-meals forms—both materials and staff time—ran close to $200,000 annually before schoolwide free meals.
An analysis of the House bill by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities echoes Wiggins’ dire predictions. In urban school districts like Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago—along with rural districts across the country with large numbers of low-income families—there are upwards of 7,000 schools that have adopted community eligibility but would fail to meet the proposed 60 percent criteria. Another 11,000 schools that qualify for the program, but have not yet adopted community eligibility, would also lose the option because they fall below the 60 percent mark. According to the CBPP report, the change would deal a serious blow to districts from Arizona—with six schools on the Navajo Nation serving about 1,500 students—to Alabama—with dozens of schools in Mobile and Montgomery and tens of thousands of students affected.
Zoë Neuberger, a senior policy analyst for CBPP who studies nutrition-assistance programs, said that a good amount of confusion and misinformation surrounds the CEP. “Changing the threshold for community eligibility from 40 percent to 60 percent will make it harder for schools serving very low-income communities to offer school meals,” Neuberger said. She emphasized that USDA’s evaluation, which compared participation in schools that had adopted community eligibility to similar schools that hadn’t, found that lunch participation was 5.2 percent higher in community eligibility schools and breakfast participation was 9.4 percent higher. And she stressed that community-eligibility schools are reimbursed based on a formula so that the higher the poverty level, the higher the reimbursement. “Congress should stay out of the way of these schools, which already face plenty of challenges, so they can focus on providing high quality meals and educating their students,” she said.