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Report: Streamlined School Meal Programs Feed More Kids

PHOTO: Washington schools with high percentages of students in poverty will be able to offer all students free meals starting next year, in what's known as the "community eligibility option." Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
PHOTO: Washington schools with high percentages of students in poverty will be able to offer all students free meals starting next year, in what's known as the "community eligibility option." Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
October 1, 2013

SEATTLE – More low-income kids in Washington could be eating free meals at school, with changes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the way pupils are qualified for the meal programs.

A new report says the changes, already rolled out in about a dozen states, are working well. Known as the community eligibility option (CEO), it allows schools with high-poverty populations to feed every child at the school at no charge.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has been following the roll-out. According to Madeleine Levin, senior policy analyst and report co-author, in some states, CEO has more than doubled the number of kids receiving meals.

"They saw that it really benefited the students and they were able to feed a lot more students, and to work out the changes, and that they were able to get the amount of reimbursement they need to break even in their school meal programs," said Levin.

Washington schools gain the community eligibility option starting in the next school year. Around the state, more than 400 schools have such high percentages of students in poverty that they would qualify for full reimbursement for meals from the federal government.

Katie Mosehauer, executive director of Washington Appleseed, a legal advocacy group that is looking into what community eligibility will mean for the state, says with fewer federal dollars predicted for the SNAP or food stamp program, spending less on "lunch money" could be an important break for families.

"There are a lot of individuals who kind of live at the margins, that either make a little too much to qualify for food assistance or, with these cuts, they used to qualify and now they don't," explained Mosehauer. "So, community eligibility and providing free meals within a school means everybody benefits."

The report says schools also benefit by not having to spend staff time collecting money from students, or written applications from families for free or low-cost meals for their children. It was released jointly by the Food Research and Action Center and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and is online on the FRAC website.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA