Educate your state and school district about community eligibility.
Community eligibility is the newest option available for allowing schools with high percentages of low-income children to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. It increases participation by children in the school meal programs, reduces labor costs for schools, and increases federal revenues. In short, it allows for a healthier student body and a healthier school meal budget.
Included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, community eligibility completely eliminates paper applications. Instead, schools are reimbursed through a formula based on the number of “identified students” – those certified without application for free school meals because they are in foster care or Head Start, are homeless, migrant or living in households that receive SNAP/Food Stamps, TANF cash assistance or the Food Distribution on Indian Reservation benefits. The option has been available in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan since the start of the 2011-2012 school year. Washington D.C., New York, Ohio and West Virginia began offering the option to school districts in the 2012-2013 school year, and an additional four states will be added in the 2013-2014 school year. Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, all schools nationwide that meet the 40 percent identified student threshold will be eligible to participate in this option.
USDA issued a memo (pdf) in 2012 that offers helpful guidance about community eligibility.
Advocates and school districts can work together to learn about this new option. Here are some resources to help you determine the best way to implement community eligibility.
Since this is a new option, local school officials may not have heard of community eligibility and will have some questions. They will want to know whether their schools are eligible for community eligibility, how they would be reimbursed for school meals, how it would affect the operations of the school food program and other programs that rely on data from school meal applications, and what their obligations would be to students and state administrators. School districts are likely to be especially interested in how operating under the community eligibility option will affect their share of Title I education funding.
School districts considering adopting community eligibility will want to calculate its impact on their federal reimbursements and food service revenue. They will have to decide which schools will participate. For reimbursements, school districts will have decide whether to use individual school building direct certification percentages or whether they will be clustered and reimbursed based on the group’s direct certification percentage.
School districts that have decided that some or all schools will operate under community eligibility will need to adjust their administrative processes. In particular, the claiming process must be revised so that claims for meals served in community eligibility schools are based on their claiming percentage (directly certified percentage x 1.6) and meal counts. Districts that will be collecting household income information using an alternative form will need to establish new practices for distributing and processing those forms unrelated to the school meals program administration.
It will be important to communicate any changes in the application process to parents, especially in districts that decide to implement community eligibility in some schools. Parents will need to understand which schools still require an application, and why some of their children might receive free meals while others do not. Although there was initially some concern that parents might object to some children getting free meals while others do not, school districts in the first three states implementing community eligibility received overwhelmingly positive feedback from families.