Food

GOP May Curb Program That Gives Millions of Students Free Meals

Many schools in poor neighborhoods are now serving free breakfast and lunch to all children—but changes to eligibility rules could limit its success.

There have been a lot of headlines in recent years about Americans having the food safety net pulled out from under them. In 2013, the end of stimulus funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program led to all food-stamp recipients losing benefits, which amounted to 21 lost meals a month for a family of four. Then in 2014, the long-awaited farm bill promised to cut $8.7 billion from SNAP (a reduction in funding that state governors later nullified). This year, up to 1 million people could lose benefits as Great Recession–era waivers expire, bringing back the 36-month SNAP limit for adults who are unemployed and do not have kids.

Less attention has been paid to a federal program that has increased food access for a segment of the population that suffers the most long-lasting, damaging effects of hunger: children.

Thanks to a provision in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, each child in 18,000 public schools across the country will receive free breakfast and lunch during the 2015–16 academic year. More than 8.5 million students attend these schools, which stretch across 3,000 school districts around the country.

The program, called the Community Eligibility Provision, was heralded as a success in a report published last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research and Action Center, both left-leaning groups. This week, however, House Republicans are considering measures that could hamper that success just two years after CEP became available to public schools nationwide, following a limited pilot period.

“Community eligibility’s popularity in its first two years of nationwide implementation speaks to schools’ desire to improve access to healthy meals while reducing red tape, as well as to the option’s sound design,” reads the report. Part of that sound design includes how the program determines whether or not schools are eligible—and that’s the part Congress is thinking about changing.

Currently, the logic of CEP works like this. Students enrolled in a federal nutrition assistance program, such as SNAP or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, can qualify for free meals without a separate application. But relying solely on government-run programs doesn’t guarantee that all students whose families are stretching to pay for breakfast and lunch are accounted for. Because of the concentrated geography of poverty, schools with high rates of students whose families are enrolled in federal programs are likely to enroll students who are on the edge of hunger and poverty—if 40 percent of students at a school are eligible for free lunch without enrolling in the program, it is eligible for the CEP program.

The national school breakfast and lunch program has an operation budget of about $15 billion, and it served 8 billion meals last year. While that is arguably an economically efficient program, there’s concern that increased adoption of CEP—currently, just over half of eligible schools are taking advantage of the program—will cut into the paid meals that subsidize students who eat for free to the point that it will no longer be viable. Politico is reporting that a draft bill from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce for reauthorizing child nutrition programs would increase the eligibility threshold from 40 percent of students enrolled in a federal aid program to 60 percent.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is putting his weight behind CEP. He said in a statement that with the program feeding 8.5 million kids “without stigma,” Congress should “stay the course in child nutrition.”

“It would be unwise to roll back standards, saddle parents and school administrators with more paperwork, or weaken assistance for our most vulnerable children,” he continued. “USDA stands ready to work with Congress to support the reauthorization of child nutrition programs that continue to improve the health and well-being of the next generation.”

The bill has a long way to go before it becomes law, but the research on hunger and childhood development strongly supports non-means-tested lunch programs in poor neighborhoods. As researchers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research and Action Center noted in the CEP report, “High-poverty neighborhoods, which can be violent, stressful, and environmentally hazardous, can impair children’s cognitive development, school performance, mental health, and long-term physical health—even if the family itself is not low-income.”

It may seem quaint to say that a free meal can make a difference in that type of environment, but studies suggest otherwise. “Children experiencing hunger have been found to have lower math scores and be more likely to repeat a grade,” the report reads. “Teens experiencing hunger are more likely to have been suspended from school and have difficulty getting along with other children. Meanwhile, educators report that children who eat breakfast at school are more likely to arrive at school on time, to behave, and be attentive in class.”

With CEP all but brand-new, it is set to become more broadly adopted in the coming years, giving more and more kids the simple advantage of two free square meals a day.

This article originally appeared on TakePart.com

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.
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