By Amanda Litvinov
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A significant change proposed by the U.S. House to the federal child nutrition law would reduce student access to healthy school meals. And that is very concerning to educators.
The community eligibility provision (CEP) of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allows schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to the entire student body if at least 40 percent of students are identified as eligible for CEP. Schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed for meals at a slightly higher rate, and they are freed of the administrative burden of enrolling each qualifying student for free or reduced-price meals.
Most important, community eligibility makes school a hunger-free zone where all students are more likely to achieve.
But a proposal by the House Education and Workforce Committee to raise the eligibility threshold—requiring that 60 percent of the student body is eligible for CEP—means thousands of schools that have already enacted CEP would lose it, and thousands more would become ineligible to do so in the future.
That did not come as welcome news to Florida teacher Apryle Jackson, who says there’s no question the provision has improved life for low-income kids in Osceola County, where she lives and currently serves as president of the Osceola Education Association.
“We’ve seen a real difference in our schools that offer free meals to all students,” said Jackson. “Attendance has gone up and the kids are on task more often.”
Osceola County has one of the highest rates of homeless students in the state, largely because of the high number of low-paying, high turnover jobs in the tourism industry.
“So many of our working parents earn less than $10 an hour and rents here are really high,” Jackson said. “They have to double up with other families, stay in low-rent hotels, or camp out, and they’re likely to have problems providing meals for their families.”
Fifty of Osceola County’s 52 schools currently qualify for community eligibility, and so far, 30 have adopted it. But if the House proposal goes through, only 28 schools will qualify, according to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research & Action Center.
Statewide, roughly half of Florida schools that could implement community eligibility currently do. But the state might not get the opportunity to broaden adoption of the program, and many schools will lose it under the House proposal.
The potential effect on child hunger nationwide is alarming.
More than 18,000 of the nation’s high-poverty schools have adopted community eligibility, and more than 7,000 of them would lose it within two years, affecting nearly 3.4 million students. Another 11,647 schools that qualify but have not yet adopted it would lose eligibility.
The House committee could act as early as next week.
“To say that progress on child nutrition would be set back by this proposal is putting it lightly,” said NEA Director of Government Relations Mary Kusler. “More than 3 million children will lose access to community eligibility, which could put some at risk of no longer receiving meals at all.
“We shouldn’t even consider making this powerful tool in the fight against child hunger less effective when so many students and their families are living below the poverty line,” Kusler said.
Florida’s Apryle Jackson has taught every level from kindergarten through adult education, and most recently she taught intensive reading for high school students. She says that ensured access to free breakfast and lunch could have really helped students like hers.
“There’s no question it would have helped most of the kids I ever taught over the course of my career,” said Jackson. “When I taught 4th grade, I remember we had a little girl who was hitting, biting, and flailing. We discovered she hadn’t eaten all weekend and was trying to get some food from the teacher’s desk,” Jackson said.
“If we have a way to combat hunger like that, we shouldn’t be letting it go. It’s unthinkable.”