For the 2015-16 school year, the NC Department of Public Instruction reports that around 1,200 public schools are eligible to participate in an initiative that aims to fight hunger in high-poverty schools. Referred to as Community Eligibility, this initiative allows eligible high-poverty schools, groups of schools, or school districts to offer breakfast and lunch to all students free of charge.
When children arrive at school hungry, it is very difficult for them to concentrate and do well in the classroom. Accordingly, community eligibility helps ensure that all children in high-poverty schools arrive to class each day fed and ready to learn. Last year, North Carolina got off to a good start with nearly 650 schools (around half of eligible schools) adopting community eligibility to feed more than 310,000 kids. Participating schools note that more NC children are eating school meals because of community eligibility, with a particular increase in the number of children eating breakfast.
The second year of this initiative provides an opportunity for additional eligible schools to join this initiative. With 1,200 public schools eligible for the upcoming school year, this means that hundreds of schools are not currently participating. Eligible schools that are not currently participating in Community Eligibility have until August 31, 2015 to confirm that they will join the initiative.
The impact of Community Eligibility extends beyond ensuring that children arrive to class fed and ready to learn. By eliminating the need to collect school meal applications, schools are able to use their staff more effectively and reduce administrative costs. These cost savings are likely welcomed by local schools amid limited financial resources and tight budgets.
This is not to say that the transition is easy. For example, a key feature of community eligibility is that schools no longer have to collect school meal applications; however, this paperwork has long been key to determining school funding mechanisms and poverty estimates, among other things. However, the USDA and US Dept. of Education have issued a variety of rules intended to address this issue and viable solutions exist for other particular challenges.
North Carolina has an opportunity to build upon its initial success with fighting child hunger through community eligibility. The overall health and prospects for the state will largely depend on the care and attention given to one of our most valuable assets – our youth. Supporting participating schools and getting more eligible schools to join community eligibility helps promote opportunity for all children.