Moving Towards Free Meals for All Students

I grew up in an economically challenged county and attended schools in a poor, underfunded school district set up to fail. For the most part, we were all poor. Growing up, my household income was low enough that I qualified for free school meals. Unfortunately, many of my peers had household incomes slightly above the poverty level and had to pay for school meals. As if the newest kicks or brand-name uniform shirts weren’t enough to divide us, now we had an added factor: food. Because my meals were free, I never worried about whether or not I would eat. However, I often wondered if my friends who had to pay shared that assurance. If Ms. Lisa needs her vehicle repaired and money is tight for the month, would Luke still eat? 

School meals shouldn’t be a cause of division or worry, and no child should have to learn while hungry.

Fortunately, there is a solution to Luke’s scenario: the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). The CEP is a federally funded option that allows all students to eat breakfast and lunch during the school day for free. Schools qualify for CEP if at least 40% of their students have been identified through the “direct certification” process. Direct Certification is a federally mandated process that schools must use to certify children who are eligible for free meals without completing an application. Students qualify for direct certification if they are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); receive Medicaid benefits or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance; are migrant or homeless; are in foster care; and/or are enrolled in Head Start or state-sponsored pre-kindergarten.

How does CEP work?

Let’s say Luke’s school has 350 students and 148 of those students (42%) are “identified” through direct certification. That school is eligible for CEP. The CEP can be used by individual schools, groups of schools, and entire districts.

Benefits CEP offers to Texas Schools

Once a school opts in to CEP, all students eat for free and benefit from more advantages: 

  • Reduced stigma and greater equity — students do not have to worry about being judged by their peers because of how they receive school meals. Each student receives the same breakfast and lunch.
  • More children get to eat both breakfast and lunch are served to all students, and no one goes hungry. Students that have access to better nutrition tend to perform better academically.
  • Less paperwork — schools no longer have to spend time chasing school meal applications; handling meal payments accounts; or tracking whether each meal served was paid, reduced-price, or free.
  • Stability — schools are guaranteed a rate of funding for CEP for four years that can be increased if the share of directly certified students goes up, but cannot be reduced.
  • Increased revenue more children eating school meals means more revenue which can be used to pay staff, buy equipment, and improve the quality of the food served.

Build Back Better Would Strengthen School Meals

The Build Back Better (BBB) Act, as passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in November, would strengthen multiple domestic programs and take several steps to address alarming rates of childhood hunger. Food security is a critical part of the foundation Texas children need as they work to overcome the educational, health, and economic impacts of the pandemic. BBB would improve school meals in Texas by:

  • Expanding the number of schools able to offer free meals to all students through CEP. The bill would make more schools eligible for CEP by lowering the minimum threshold for the share of students directly certified for free meals from 40% to 25%. For example, during the 2020-2021 school year, 3,700 schools in Texas adopted CEP. With the expanded provisions of the BBB Act in place, more than 3,400 additional schools could implement community eligibility.
  • If all eligible schools in Texas adopt community eligibility as bolstered by the BBB Act, then at least 7,100 schools­ — which represent 85% of schools in the state that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program — could use CEP to offer free meals to all of their students, providing more food security to approximately 3,057,461 Texas children.
  • With the BBB Act, CEP puts more money into our schools, because the multiplier that determines the amount of federal reimbursement a school receives increases from 1.6 to 2.5. The higher the percentage of directly certified students, the higher the meal reimbursement. Let’s take a look at how much Luke’s school would benefit. Currently, with 42% directly identified students, the school would be reimbursed for 67% of the school meals it serves (42 x 1.6). Under BBB, that multiplier increases to 2.5, and Luke’s school would be reimbursed for 100% of the school meals served. This school would now have more money and could use it to invest in staff or improve the quality of food served. 
  • The BBB Act would also create an important new statewide community eligibility option. If Texas adopted community eligibility statewide, approximately 85-90% of meals served would be reimbursed at the highest federal rate. The state would be responsible for providing funding to reimburse schools for the rest of the meals at the free rate.
  • Students would get to eat during the summer. BBB would extend the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program nationwide for students who receive free or reduced-price school meals by providing a $65-per-month grocery benefit on an EBT card for the summers of 2023 and 2024. This provides additional support to the existing summer nutrition programs designed to replace school meals during months when kids are not in school. All students attending a CEP school would get to take advantage of summer meals.

As we strive to end childhood hunger, a program like CEP just makes sense. We must work to make it a viable option for more schools. Congress can help by passing the Build Back Better Act, but eligible schools can — and should — opt in to CEP now. A family’s inability to pay should never impact a student’s access to food. Children go to school to learn the fundamentals needed to live up to their fullest potential and be successful as adults, but they can’t learn when they’re hungry. We have the resources and responsibility to show the millions of children in Texas like Luke that their education and well-being are a priority. We can start by making sure they are well-fed at school.

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