With the school year underway again, Nebraskans know how important it is to make sure our children have everything they need to succeed in school, and a big part of this is ensuring that all students have the food they need to fuel their learning. Unfortunately, about one in five households in Nebraska are food insecure, meaning that they do not always have the means to get food on the table, causing many kids to show up to school hungry.
Thankfully schools have been stepping in, offering free and reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. Last year, more than 21.5 million children from families with lower incomes were able to fuel their days through this program with little or no cost to them. However, there is a better option for certain schools, families, and children. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) became available as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and enables eligible schools in low-income areas to give free breakfast and lunch to all their students. This means that students no longer have to pay for each meal individually, and families no longer have to apply to be part of the school lunch program. To be eligible, schools just need to show that 40% of their students are “identified,” or already qualified to receive free meals. Identified students come from food insecure backgrounds: they may be from families participating in the SNAP or TANF programs, in the foster care system, or experiencing homelessness. With 51% of students in public schools coming from low-income families in 2013, there is a need that Community Eligibility meals can fill.
Adopting Community Eligibility into schools ensures that all students get the nutrition they need and ready to learn. Research shows that kids who eat breakfast earn 17.5% higher scores in the math portions of standardized tests. On the other hand, kids who go hungry are less able to concentrate on their schoolwork, and more likely to become sick. By providing two square meals, Community Eligibility reduces these health risks, and guarantees that schoolkids are spared the stigma that comes with taking advantage of the free and reduced meals. This means that kids spend less time waiting in meal lines and have more time to enjoy their food.
CEP not only benefits schoolkids, but also the schools themselves. Not having to process meal program applications or take meal payments in the meal line saves staff time and money. Also, with more students eating breakfast and lunch, the cost of producing meals goes down as food is produced on a larger scale. Schools can save money and reinvest in other programs.
Unfortunately, Nebraska schools have not yet taken advantage of Community Eligibility. Last year, only 3% of eligible school districts enrolled in CEP. Nebraska stands much to gain from adopting Community Eligibility in its eligible schools and school districts, which would benefit children and families across the state.