Spotlight Exclusives

School Lunch Program Suffers Growing Pains

Jessica Allred Jessica Allred, posted on

MISSOULA, MT: On a normal Friday afternoon here recently, hungry students lined up, eager for lunch. In the busy din of the cafeteria, each student recited an ID number to a meal program worker who punched it into a small computer. Meal balances or eligibility for free or reduced assistance flashed on the screen as the children move on to take their trays of meatball subway sandwiches, fruit, and milk.

The woman tracking student meals is patient with the kids – this process is new to many of them. For the past four years, meals at Lowell Elementary School have been universal: all students were served free breakfast and lunch through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the federal school meal programs. This academic year, however, Missoula County Public Schools has dropped the program, citing budget costs.

CEP, a project supported by former First Lady Michelle Obama and enacted in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (2010), provides a path for high-poverty schools to serve every child breakfast and lunch free of charge, while bypassing administratively burdensome paperwork and tracking for meal program workers. To qualify, schools or groups of schools must have a student population where 40 percent or more categorically qualify for meal assistance. Referred to as ISP (identified student percentage), categorically qualified students include children whose families are enrolled in assistance programs like SNAP, TANF or Medicaid, as well as kids who are experiencing homelessness or are living in the foster care system.

CEP is a relatively new provision; piloted in eleven states from 2011-2014, it has only been accessible to districts and schools in all states since the 2014-2015 school year. Overall, it’s been a resounding success. Many communities were quick to adopt this new tool, with 55 percent of eligible schools participating in 2016. The program has demonstrated broad benefits for students, families, and school districts, including higher meal participation and reduced barriers for food-insecure children, eliminating stigma for children who rely on school meals as a main source of nutrition, reduced administrative paperwork for families and program staff, and the elimination of school meal debt.

Five years after the provision’s nation-wide expansion, though, some districts are struggling to utilize the program effectively and maintain financial viability, prompting supporters to suggest potential congressional reforms.

Alison Maurice, senior child nutrition policy analyst with the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), noted, “Many school districts initially opted-in nationwide, and now we are starting to see what will happen when they finish their initial four-year certification cycle. They are having to decide whether or not to continue [CEP participation].”

CEP has a complicated financial structure. Reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the meal program is based on the school’s identified student percentage, or students eligible for free meals. Meals are reimbursed at the federal free-meal rate for 1.6 times the school’s ISP, with the balance of meals being reimbursed at the federal full-pay rate. For most programs, that is the difference of $3.65 per meal for free-rate and $0.47 for full-pay. Depending on the percentage of students who are categorically qualified in a school or group of schools, the number of meals not reimbursed at the free-meal rate can quickly sink a program.

Examples of this can be found across the nation. Here in Missoula, Lowell Elementary is one of eight schools in the district that have participated in CEP in the past, but no longer have access to universal meals. After four years of participation, in the 2018-2019 school year, McDowell County Public Schools in North Carolina made the decision to cut ties with CEP. The district, which has about 6,000 students, serves an estimated 1.3 million meals each year. As the ISP changed within the district, the financial impact of the program became unsustainable. The same year, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina dropped the provision for similar reasons.

ISP is driven by several factors, one of the most important being SNAP enrollment. “If SNAP enrollment [in a district] is going down, we will see a decrease in ISP. Particularly then, continuing to participate can be more difficult,” said Maurice. “Across the nation we are seeing that somewhat. Maybe the economy is improving in some areas. Maybe there’s fear among immigrants and they are no longer participating in SNAP. Many factors are contributing.”  Maurice added concerns about recently proposed rule changes to the SNAP program that are designed to cut enrollment; such rule changes will negatively impact ISPs for currently eligible schools, placing many programs in financial risk.

In response to challenges felt across the nation, FRAC and other anti-hunger advocates support a small but meaningful change to the provision that would improve the financial viability for schools that choose to participate in CEP. In its Child Nutrition Reauthorization priorities, FRAC recommends that Congress increase the reimbursement formula multiplier from 1.6 to 1.8. This small difference could bridge the fiscal gap experienced by districts like McDowell and Missoula counties.

Maurice explained, “Right now, with the 1.6 multiplier, a school has to be at 62.5 percent ISP to get to 100 percent meal reimbursement – which is an incredibly high percentage of poverty; ISP is just a subset of your low-income population. There are certainly children who are living in poverty who are not identified in that ISP.

“Increasing to 1.8 makes it so that a school with maybe a 55 percent ISP – which is still very high poverty – get close to 100 percent of free meals being reimbursed at the free rate. It makes the program more sustainable for more schools.”

The Trump administration’s fiscal 2020 budget suggested a different approach, proposing to cut $1.7 billion from the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs over the next decade and close a “loophole” that allowed districts to participate in CEP even if each individual school didn’t meet the 40 percent eligibility rate.

Despite early challenges, nation-wide participation and support for CEP remains strong. More schools will participate in CEP in the 2019-2020 school year than ever before, even as the program experiences some attrition. There is mutual agreement that CEP is a tool that widely benefits students and families. Early years of implementation offer important information about gaps experienced by schools that want to utilize this program but have found that its existing structure can be fiscally challenging.

In Texas, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) has embraced CEP, expanding the provision’s reach from 43 schools in the 2018-2019 school year to 82 in the current academic year. When asked about the district’s decision to expand barrier-free meal access, Edgar Larrea, Business Support Specialist, pointed to impact.

“It’s our goal to benefit as many kids as possible. When they have healthy and nutritious food, it helps the whole family.” Feedback from families has been positive as well,“ Larrea said. “Parents are very happy. When you think about how much pressure it takes off a family, the benefits are incredible.”

Here in Missoula, parent Dayel Dunning was dismayed by the decision to no longer participate in CEP. “This decision seems to have been made without any input from the public or from the people that it most directly impacts,” said Dunning, who has three school-aged children and a preschooler. Her school-aged children have all attended CEP schools and participated in the program. When the schools her children attended stopped participating in CEP, her family participated in school meals less often. “The decision to go away from CEP absolutely impacted our participation, and I know that’s the same with other families as well,” she said.

Congressional supporters had hoped to bring the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), the continuation legislation for the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, back to the floor in 2019 after having failed to pass a reauthorizing bill in 2015. But it’s unclear, with just a few weeks left in the congressional calendar, whether any action will be taken.

Protecting and strengthening CEP is high on the priority list for anti-hunger and child advocates and Maurice noted that the general pulse on the Hill is to “do no harm” to CEP. CEP has bipartisan support, particularly given its direct benefit to rural schools.

“Based on what we’ve learned from school districts at that lower end [of ISP qualifying percentage] – increasing that multiplier would just give them needed financial support. Particularly rural schools that just have higher expenses – high transportation costs, the cost of food; the increase would really help those districts that can’t benefit from the economy of scale,” she said.

Childhood hunger is rare space where bipartisan work has historically prevailed. From rural America to the urban cores, students who do not have access to adequate meals experience similar challenges in the classroom and in life. One in six children in the United States spend their most formative years in food insecurity. When given the right tools, schools can offer effective intervention to the issues of hunger and poor nutrition in ways that reduce stigma and create a healthier, more dignified community for everyone.

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