For school districts in high-poverty neighborhoods across Washington, there is a promising solution to address hunger and help reduce the opportunity gap in education: sign up for the “community eligibility” program. This program allows districts to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, paid for by the federal government. School districts have until August 31st to enroll in the program.
The program reduces childhood hunger, better prepares students to learn in the classroom, eases stress for parents by helping their tight food budget go further, and reduces bureaucratic paperwork so that schools can focus on educating kids. Now in its second year, community eligibility is available to schools around the country where a large portion of students come from families that are struggling to make ends meet. It offers breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost (see Box 1 for more explanation). The program is offered through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.
Nationwide, community eligibility served 6.6 million children in over 14,000 schools last year. But only about half of the schools that are eligible to take advantage of this powerful tool to feed children participated. So many more hungry students could benefit. Some school districts in Washington state have already taken advantage of this provision, recognizing the role community eligibility can play in creating a better life for kids, both in school and at home. School districts in our state that have enrolled in our state with the largest student populations affected include:
- The entire Yakima School District, where more than 15,000 students can now receive free breakfast and lunch at school
- All schools in the Sunnyside School District, impacting over 6,000 students
- Eleven schools in the Franklin Pierce School District, improving access to nutritious meals for just over 5,000 students
- All schools in the Toppenish School District, helping to ensure more than 3,800 students don’t go to school hungry
But we can do better; only 122 schools have adopted community eligibility – just 31% of those that are eligible to participate. The interactive map below shows how Washington state stacks up to the rest of the country.
We know that one in five kids in Washington live in households that struggle to put food on the table. We also know that the legacy of racist public policies in our country means that kids of color are at an even higher risk of hunger. Not knowing where their next meal will come from negatively impacts all aspects of a child’s life, particularly in school. Kids that go to school hungry can’t perform as well academically, limiting their opportunity to reach their full potential. By ensuring that kids whose families are struggling financially can receive two free meals a day in school, community eligibility helps reduce the gap between students with low incomes and their peers by giving them a better chance to come to class ready to learn. In fact, schools that have taken steps to increase the number of students with low incomes who receive free breakfast report that discipline and behavior problems went down and student attentiveness and attendance went up.
That is why it is so important that local school officials throughout Washington state opt in to community eligibility by Monday, August 31st. By doing so, they can support education and reduce hunger for Washington’s children.
For more information about how community eligibility works and for a full list of eligible schools, click here. For more information about Community Eligibility in Washington, contact Linda Stone, Food Policy Director with the Children’s Alliance.
The Budget and Policy Center staff would like to thank Linda Stone, Food Policy Director from the Children’s Alliance, Adam Hyla E. Holdorf, Communications Directory from the Children’s Alliance, and Rebecca Segal, Child Nutrition Associate with the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities (CBPP), for their contributions to this post.