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House School-Lunch Bill Would Raise Threshold for Community Eligibility

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The House Committee on Education and the Workforce advanced a bill Wednesday that would raise the threshold for a school's participation in the community eligibility provision, a relatively new option that has allowed high poverty schools to provide free lunches and breakfasts to all of their students without requiring income verification from their families.

The bill would also provide "block grants" for up to three states, which would be released from following federal nutrition standards in exchange for accepting a fixed pot of money to cover their needs, and it would ease up on controversial school nutrition standards championed by first lady Michelle Obama.

Republicans on the committee said the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 is necessary to beat back what they see as an oversized federal role in school meals, but a broad range of groups, including child hunger groups and the School Nutrition Association, voiced opposition to the measure, calling it "reckless."

As it is currently, the community eligibiity provision allows schools to offer free meals to all students if at least 40 percent of the children it enrolls are directly certified in the federally subsidized meals program. 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."

Among other changes, the bill approved by the House committee Wednesday would raise that threshold from 40 percent to 60 percent.

Proponents of community eligibility say it spares schools from paperwork and administrative burdens, and that it allows low-income children to eat free meals without the stigma or red tape of particpation in the free meal program, which is often a barrier for participation.

But Republicans on the committee said the provision is wasteful, potentially allowing children from higher-income families access to free meals.

Raising the threshold, as proposed in the bill, "would end the program for approximately 7,000 of the 18,000 schools currently participating, and 11,000 additional high‐poverty schools not yet participating but eligible under current law, would lose the option to implement community eligibility in future years," a broad coalition of advocacy organizations wrote in a letter opposing the bill.

The bill would also increase requirements for income verification for free and reduced-price meals participants, which the committee said will "rein in fraud and abuse." But the advocacy organizations said the new process would be cumbersome, leaving the most vulnerable students without access to subsidized meals.

The bill is part of an effort to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which sets rules for food programs, including the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

Earlier this year, a Senate committee passed a compromise bill that would make much less dramatic changes to the programs. 

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture.


 Further reading on poverty and school meals:

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