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USDA Sees 20 Percent Increase in Schools Offering Free Meals to All Students

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The number of schools offering free meals to all students through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's community eligibility provision jumped 20 percent this year, the second year the option has been available nationwide, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today.

More than 17,000 high-poverty schools now offer free federally subsidized meals to about 8 million students through the provision, Vilsack announced at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Washington. He also announced that 97 percent of schools that participate in federal school meal programs are in compliance with heightened federal nutrition standards created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. 

Under community eligibility, qualifying schools offer universal free meals without requiring any students to qualify through family-income verification. Districts have said that paperwork can be a hurdle that keeps otherwise eligible students from eating free or reduced-price meals. As a result, some students go hungry. As I wrote previously:

"A school or a school system qualifies for community eligibility if at least 40 percent of its enrollment is made up of 'identified students.' Such students include those who are cleared to take part in the subsidized meals programs without applications because they live in households that participate in other federal income-based programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Other identified students are children who are participating in Head Start, living in foster care, homeless, or migrant.

Districts also can clump several schools together and consider their aggregate population for the sake of eligibility."

Pediatricians Tackle Child Hunger

Vilsack made his announcement as the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement calling on pediatricians to screen all patients for food insecurity.

"Despite improvements over the past few years, the latest data show that more than 15 million U.S. children live in households still struggling with hunger," the organization said in a news release.

The policy statements notes issues linked to childhood hunger, including:

  • "Children who live in households that are food insecure, even at the lowest levels, get sick more often, recover more slowly from illness, have poorer overall health and are hospitalized more frequently."
  • "Children and adolescents affected by food insecurity are more likely to be iron deficient, and preadolescent boys dealing with hunger issues have lower bone density. Early childhood malnutrition also is tied to conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life."
  • "Lack of adequate healthy food can impair a child's ability to concentrate and perform well in school and is linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems from preschool through adolescence."

Further reading on poverty and school meals:

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