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May 2, 2014

Setting the Table for Success

When you’re hungry and don’t know where your next meal will come from, focusing on other things can be a real challenge. This is especially true for kids, and the result can hurt them in school. In Virginia, 1 in 9 households lives with food insecurity. But Virginia now has a new chance to do something about it.

“Community eligibility” is an innovative new tool from National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs that lets schools in high-poverty areas provide nutritious meals to all students while rolling back the administrative burden on schools and families. And it turns out, it works better than the way most communities handle it now.

Community eligibility began as a pilot program in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan in 2011, and was expanded to 11 states for the 2013-2014 school year. Among participating schools, the number of kids getting lunch rose 13 percent over two years, and those getting breakfast rose 25 percent.

Because it is so successful at dealing with hunger among children, the program is now available to qualifying schools and school divisions in all states for the 2014-2015 school year.

In order to qualify, a school or school division must have a population where at least 40 percent of students meet the criteria for free school meals without an application because they are in a program like foster care or Head Start, are homeless, migrant, or living in households that receive SNAP/Food Stamps, or TANF cash assistance. Schools are reimbursed for the meals depending on the percentage of students that meet the criteria.

Virginia schools and school divisions that qualify should take this option. You can download the list of schools and divisions that qualify here. School divisions have until June 30 to decide whether to implement community eligibility in any or all of their qualifying schools.

Community eligibility benefits both schools and students. From the standpoint of schools, it reduces the administrative costs related to processing applications and enhances efficiency by eliminating the need to collect payments or use swipe cards during the meal service. More importantly, kids can rely on getting two nutritious meals a day so that they are ready and able to learn. What’s more, because all students are eating meals at no cost, community eligibility works to reduce stigma, and allows for better integration of meals into the school day.

Community eligibility is a proven, tested program, and Virginia schools and school divisions should take advantage of it because a kid’s hunger should be for knowledge, not food.

–Sara Okos, Policy Director

The Commonwealth Institute

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