Community Eligibility Program can help hungry kids

This week we celebrate National School Breakfast Week.  The breakfast program began as a pilot program in 1966. Now, in the wake of the Great Recession, 11.6 million US children eat school breakfast each weekday morning.  Most Maine schools offer breakfast.  However, only 53% of eligible Maine children  are eating it. Community Eligibility, a new federal program, makes it easier for schools to serve breakfast by reducing paperwork and eliminating the stigma that only poor kids get free meals.

Eating breakfast is linked to improved student health and achievement

Were it not for school breakfast, many children would go hungry. And for low-income families, where food insecurity has increased significantly in Maine since the Great Recession, school breakfast is essential.  Statewide, 1 in 4 Maine children are food-insecure, meaning they are unsure when their next meal will be. Child hunger is particularly high in the western mountains and Washington County.

Children who skip breakfast take in fewer nutrients over the rest of the day, and are more likely to be obese.  They are also more likely to demonstrate behavioral and emotional problems – unsurprising from kids with empty tummies.  Research also shows that school breakfast improves attendance and standardized test scores.

Community eligibility offers a way to reach all children who need breakfast

Community Eligibility is a part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and already has been implemented in nine states. The USDA will roll it out nationwide during the 2014-2015 school year. The policy allows schools to serve breakfast and lunch to all students, if 40% of a school’s student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch.

Community eligibility means that not only will children get two nutritious meals a day at school, but more children will benefit. Notably, the national pilot sites that have served breakfast to all students have experienced an increase in the number of low-income children eating breakfast. Schools offering breakfast to everyone reach more students because they can serve breakfast first period, or offer “grab and go” bags to eat between classes.

We have a great example in Maine. Some Portland schools protect low-income children from feeling embarrassed about accepting free breakfast by offering it to all children.

It’s great that Maine schools offer school breakfast, but we know that too many low-income children are not using it. Implementing community eligibility next year will require some set up at the outset. But in the long run, it will save staff time that would otherwise have been spent processing paper applications and swiping cards. Most importantly, community eligibility gives principals and teachers another tool to ensure that no Maine student faces a long, hungry day at school.