Expanding free and reduced-price lunch eligibility during COVID-19
One of the most visible services schools provided for U.S. children is the National School Lunch program. Since President Harry Truman signed the program into law in 1946, it’s been acknowledged that providing children with healthy meals is critical to their physical, emotional and academic growth. Among the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have experienced historic rates of job layoffs and losses of income that may affect their eligibility for participating in the Free and Reduced Price Lunch program. One important step local educational agencies can take to help these families successfully start the coming school year is ensure that all families that qualify for free and reduced-price lunch are enrolled. Districts can include the enrollment form in their welcome packet, make announcements that highlight the income eligibility rates and provide staff contacts that can help families fill out and collect the forms.

In addition to ensuring that individual families are aware of the eligibility thresholds and have access to the paperwork to sign up their students, school districts should also re-evaluate whether school sites may qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The CEP allows high-poverty schools to eliminate school meal applications and serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge. The economic crisis will make more school districts and schools than ever before eligible to implement community eligibility for the 2020–21 school year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended its deadline for LEAs applying for the Community Eligibility Provision to Aug. 31, 2020.

CEP schools must have a minimum identified student percentage of 40 percent, based on enrollment, and can qualify individually or as a group to participate in the program. The provision allows for the reduction of paperwork and other administrative burdens at the local level by simplifying the traditional operating procedures for free and reduced-price lunch eligibility and meal counting. Schools that have implemented the CEP have experienced striking increases in school meal participation, and many also reported improved attendance. Districts can work with local county officials to help verify their student participation rates via CalFRESH, CalWORKs and medical data to find out if they qualify for CEP.

“There is everything to like about the Community Eligibility Provision — it maximizes federal reimbursements, simplifies meal program administration, and increases participation by removing stigma,” said Christina Hecht, senior policy advisor at the University of California Nutrition Policy Institute. “After implementing, many schools see added benefits such as improved academic performance and decreased absenteeism. The economic disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic mean that all districts should check their CEP status.”

In addition to increasing the availability and participation in schools’ free and reduced-price lunch programs, CEP programs help reduce the stigma for students participating in them. This, in turn, can help reduce bullying and social stratification, and increase feelings of connectedness to the school community.

CEP also can assist in reducing the administrative burden of not only enrolling and verifying students in FRPL but in distributing breakfasts and lunches with new rules for social distancing. Schools participating in CEP can eliminate the hassle of distributing and keep track of meals based on student qualification status and increase flexibility for brown bag or in-classroom meals. Many districts decided to provide free lunches to all students regardless of income during the spring, and by enrolling in the CEP program can continue to do so.

While school may look very different for both staff and families in the fall, ensuring that all students have access to a healthy meal is paramount in ensuring a sense of normalcy. For more information, districts can review the relevant CSBA sample policy, Board Policy and Administrative Regulation 3553 – Free And Reduced Price Meals.