After years of experience and research, we know what an important role the federal school meals program plays in making sure all students have the nutrition they require to grow healthy, and to stay focused on the lessons at hand.

And now, five years after the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, we know that offering free meals to all students makes it easier to reach more of those who really need them.

A proposal now surfacing in Congress, however, would make many schools ineligible for the universal free meal program, cutting back on the success that has been seen the last two years in places like Skowhegan and Portland, as well as West Virginia and Detroit.

That proposal should be dead on arrival. With all we know now about how hunger affects learning and cognitive development, Congress should be expanding its school meals program, not cutting it back just as it’s hitting its stride.

COMMUNITY ELIGIBILITY

The Community Eligibility Provision, part of school lunch reforms passed in 2010, says that any school or school district in which 40 percent or more of students qualify automatically for free or reduced-price lunch can offer free meals to all students, regardless of income. Schools are then reimbursed by the federal government on a sliding scale based on how many of their students participate in means-tested state or federal programs, such as food stamps.

A proposal before the House Education and Workforce Committee, however, would raise that threshold to 60 percent, saving $1.6 billion over 10 years, which would then be redirected to breakfast and summer food programs.

Supporting the other meal programs is an admirable goal, and one that should be pursued on its own.

But because of the way the percentage rates are calculated, raising the threshold would eliminate all but the very poorest schools from the universal free meals program, and ensure that a good portion of the students who very much need the extra meals do not get them.

REFORMS WORKING

In a lot of places, school meal programs are vastly underutilized. In Maine, for instance, only 61 percent of those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch are participating. Not coincidentally, there are about 64,000 students in Maine who are not getting enough nutritious food.

But that has started to change in the last few years, coinciding with the arrival of the Community Eligibility Provision, which removes the stigma kids felt under the previous system, when they were singled out for receiving free meals.

Lewiston, for one, reports an increase in usage of about 20 percent after implementation of the free meals program, and nationwide, there have been increases of 25 percent in breakfast meals and 13 percent in lunch, all while cutting back on the amount of administration the program requires.

And, barring any changes, it will only improve from there. In its second full year following three years of pilot programs, the Community Eligibility Provision is now used by 18,000 schools, an increase of 4,000 from the first year and about 51 percent of the total eligible.

The proposed change, however, would make roughly 7,000 schools ineligible, including many in Maine, which has few truly high poverty schools but many within the 40 percent to 60 percent range that would be affected.

That would be a shame. Poor kids need access to regular, healthy meals regardless of where they go to school, and the Community Eligibility Provision gets them those meals. We know it works, and it shouldn’t be disrupted.

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