Back in February, Betsy Devos sneered to a roomful of attendees at a Conservative Political Action Conference that she was, perhaps, “the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” While she seemed to find great pleasure delivering her little zinger, the families of kids who stand to go hungry while she and other GOP leaders use them as talking points, aren't laughing.
Devos may claim to have been the first to argue the merits of free lunch with Sanders, but that seems a stretch since the GOP has repeatedly proposed cuts to programs that curb hunger. In fact, twice the House Budget has put forth bills to cut funds to the Community Eligibility Program that would affect upward of 3 million kids in 8,000 high-poverty schools.
In light of the GOP tax bill, which will result in cuts to programs like healthcare, farm subsidies, and student loans in order to fund tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, concerns about the longevity of other federally funded programs, like the Community Eligibility Program, a universal free breakfast and lunch program offered to all students in participating high poverty school districts, are mounting.
In fact, the conservative think-tank, The Heritage Foundation, goes much further than the budget committee proposals to cut Community Eligibility funds. In a 2016 report, Heritage called for the program to be completely eliminated. That's because, despite the clear benefits that districts and families who use this program receive, the program conflicts with conservative ideology that schools should not be part of a social welfare delivery system.
Community Eligibility has been an active program for only three years, and in that short time, participation rates have grown quickly. During the 2016-2017 school year more than 9 million children in more than 20,000 schools partook of the free breakfast or lunch offerings. That's up from the previous year by 2,500 schools and 1.2 million children. Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, says that's because Community Eligibility has so many benefits.
“The school breakfast program really does help ensure that kids start the school day ready to learn, and the school lunch program ensures that kids are able to continue to focus throughout the school day. Providing those meals to kids while they're at school eases some of the burden on low-income households,” says FitzSimons.
Districts that meet certain poverty thresholds can utilize this program in lieu of the free and reduced lunch program. Poverty thresholds are determined by a district's Identified Student Population. ISPs include students who would qualify for free lunch without submitting a free or reduced lunch application—those include kids who are homeless, migrant, who are in foster care, in Head Start, whose households participate in TANF, SNAP, or the Food Distribution for Indian Reservations program. Currently that ISP threshold is 40%, but the House Budget proposed bumping that threshold to 60%.
In addition to meeting the hunger needs of the poorest children in schools, it also reduces the stigma attached to participating in a free food program by offering the free services to all kids. And, FitzSimons adds, “it dramatically reduces paperwork for schools so that they can focus on providing the healthiest meals possible, instead of pushing paper around.”
Comstock Public Schools in Comstock, Michigan is a brand new school to the Community Eligibility Program. They began offering free breakfast and lunch to all of their students beginning this year. Todd Mora, superintendent of Comstock Public Schools says, “We took advantage of the CEP to lessen the amount of work our parents and students had to go through to be eligible for the free/reduced lunch program. It also lessened the overhead for the district.” He says the program has been well received by all, and that parents especially appreciate how easy the program is to use.
Clara Robinson has four children who attend Comstock Public Schools. She says her family has been on all ends of the free/reduced lunch spectrum over the years, sometimes qualifying for free or reduced lunch and other times not qualifying at all. Robinson is glad her district started offering free meals to all students.
“I think the free lunch at school takes the pressure off of all families no matter the financial situation to be assured that their child will have access to meals while at school. I have been that parent that forgot to load money on the account and had to leave work to run them something to eat,” she says, adding that the school day is much too long to go without a meal.
Beth Gostlin has two children in Comstock Public Schools. Her family doesn't otherwise qualify for free or reduced lunch, but she says she still loves that the school is offering free meals to all children. Now that breakfast and lunch are offered free of charge, her kids eat both meals at school.
“It saves me from having to worry about making lunches and if there is the right food in the fridge to take to school. If we run out of milk the night before I don’t need to run to the store to make sure they will have food for morning,” Gostlin says. She says that school meals saves time for everyone in the family. Her kids don’t always like what is served, but Gostlin likes knowing that they are getting a decent meal.
Reauthorization in doubt
The Child Nutrition Reauthorization provides Congress with an opportunity every five years to revise and strengthen the child nutrition and school meal programs. CNR was scheduled for 2016, but did not take place mainly due to policy differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. While Congress did not move forward on CNR, the programs affected by it still continue to operate. But, FitzSimons says that considering that the House Budget proposals involved significantly increasing the ISP threshold (from 40% to 60%), the Food Research & Action Center remains concerned.
“We are very concerned because it has been proposed twice now by the House so we feel that it's really important to educate people about how important and valuable Community Eligibility is for schools and for their students,” says FitzSimons.
According to data compiled by FRAC, if the thresholds were to be raised according to the past proposals, it would have a drastic effect on participating schools. States that would be hit the hardest are those with large urban and rural county districts, like Texas, New York, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Right now, 40% of the 20,000 participating schools fall in the 40-60% ISP range.
The recently passed GOP tax bill, places a lot of pressure on the budget, and FitzSimons says that compounds FRAC's fears that it will lead to cuts in both SNAP and child nutrition programs in the future.
“This program should be offered in all districts, as not all households have access to funds for meals,” says Robinson. Eventually the House Budget will circle back to the CNR, and if the GOP chooses to approach it with the same proposals to increase ISP thresholds, the food security of more than three million children will be at stake.