There has been much recent media attention paid to the National School Lunch Program. President Truman signed the program into law in 1946. The program subsidizes paid, free and reduced cost meals in public and private schools across the country.
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is the part of the program receiving the most attention and has been misconstrued. Congress included CEP in the 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization package with bipartisan support. CEP allows school districts that are located in high poverty areas to offer free meals to all students without requiring individual eligibility determinations. This provision, strongly supported by school administrators, reduces administrative effort and cost. As a result, CEP improves student achievement and behavior — things that we can all agree are important to ensuring our students' success.
The media and members of Congress have described incorrectly the participation threshold for CEP. For the first time in the 2015-16 school year, schools and districts were eligible if 40 percent of students were "directly certified." This means students were automatically enrolled for free meals because the student's household was already certified for SNAP, Head Start, TANF, or the student was homeless or in foster care.
This does not mean that a school with "only" 40 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch can participate in CEP, as has been reported.
Income eligibility for free and reduced lunch is broader than is eligibility for SNAP, Head Start and TANF. Thus, at schools with 40 to 60 percent of directly certified students, there is a much larger percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Also, data shows that many eligible students are missed when schools must individually certify students.
In the Lafayette School Corporation, where five schools meet the 40 percent threshold for students directly certified for free lunch, the actual rate of free and reduced lunch eligibility ranges from 65 to 82 percent.
Last week the House Committee on Education & Workforce passed a new reauthorization package that not only significantly restricts CEP participation but would also severely limit the ability of school staff to reach out to families who may be eligible for free and reduced price lunches, and it would increase the amount of verification paperwork (and associated administrative costs) schools will need to perform. These new provisions (introduced by U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind)) will prevent eligible, hungry Hoosier children from accessing school meals. Is this really what we want for our kids?
By eliminating the administrative costs associated with determining individual student's eligibility, managing payments, and monitoring lunch accounts, it is simply more cost effective to serve all students. Under this bill, many schools with a high rate of children living in poverty would be ineligible to participate in CEP.
Child hunger is a serious problem in Indiana and should be given serious regard. Schools are places that our children go to be nourished — intellectually, emotionally and physically. School meals are a vital part of that equation.