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Rural schools are less likely to participate in district-wide free lunch and breakfast programs despite the fact that rural families typically have more economic need for the nutrition program, according to a recent analysis from USDA’s Economic Research Service.
The study of the USDA Community Eligibility Program found that only a third of eligible rural schools participated in the program, while 46% of eligible schools in urban areas did. The study also found that the Southeast had the highest percentage of eligible schools participating in the program.
The Community Eligibility Program allows schools to qualify their students for free breakfast and lunch based on community characteristics rather than individual family applications. Schools in high-poverty areas may offer free breakfast and lunch for all enrolled students. Alternatively, schools with slightly smaller proportion of low-income students may offer free meals to most students without having to process individual applications.
In the 2016-2017 school year, more than 20,000 high-needs schools with an enrollment of nearly 10 million students nationwide had provided free meals for students under the Community Eligibility Program.
The goal of the program is to increase the use of the nutrition program and reduce school administrative costs.
The report (Characteristics of School Districts Offering Free School Meals to All Students Through the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program) explored participation rates by district size and location.
So, if the program reduces paperwork and helps feed children, why would a school decide against participating?
In some cases, the study authors speculate, switching to CEP might increase demand for school meals in ways that put a strain on the district or a specific cafeteria. Also, districts might not be able to overcome the initial administrative hurdle of qualifying for CEP, even though it would save staff time in the long run.
CEP is a relative new approach to school nutrition programs that followed the update of school meal standards in 2012. Once the new standard was implemented, according to ERS, “schools in rural areas were more likely than other schools to report increases in student complaints, decreases in meal participation, and higher costs due to lower meal volume.”
Rural schools also reported larger increases in the paid meal price due when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was implemented during the Obama Administration. With higher prices for paid meals, fewer students would participate and the cost to deliver meals to free students would increase even further.
Report authors state that “rural districts may stand to benefit from the increase in school meal participation that often accompanies CEP adoption. Or, they may be less likely to participate in the CEP due to a lack of outreach or concerns related to the financial viability of the CEP given their meal costs.”
”I think the report reinforces a lot of the important aspects of Community Eligibility, the need for growth, the room for growth. It lays out the opportunities and challenges we’ve seen from the program,” said Crystal Weedall FitzSimons, director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs for FRAC (the Food Research and Action Center).
FitzSimons said certain categories of low-income students are automatically eligible for free school meals if they meet certain conditions. These include students who are homeless, part of migrant families, in foster care, living in households that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), or part of the tribal Food Distribution Program.
“That’s a small subset, usually, of kids within a school that would be eligible for free and reduced priced meals,” FitzSimons said.
“Community Eligibility can definitely help support delivery of the school breakfast and lunch in high-need rural districts. By sharing lessons learned and promoting the benefits of school nutrition programs, we’ll be able to better meet the ultimate goal of making sure that no student has to attend school on an empty stomach. Students just cannot learn when they’re hungry.”