July 28, 2022

The Community Eligibility Provision allows high-need schools to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost. Two recent papers published by the National Bureau of Economic Research highlight the benefits of community eligibility for families with school-age children and entire communities. These are working papers, meaning they have not yet been peer-reviewed.

Community Eligibility Helps Communities

With the Federal Reserve making a historic interest rate hike, and voices calling for a recession to reduce inflation, policymakers are at a crossroads and should consider their toolkit carefully. In terms of food insecurity, the most recent recession had a devastatingly long impact on households with low incomes. As a result of the 2008 recession, increases in food insecurity took nearly 10 years to return to pre-recession levels. While the effects of the recession were felt by many, Black and Hispanic individuals experienced the greatest levels of poverty and food insecurity during those years.

Policymakers currently have an opportunity to learn from the past, and invest in solutions that address long-standing inequities. Community eligibility offers one such solution. A recent paper, “School Food Policy Affects Everyone: Retail Responses to the National School Lunch Program,” by researchers at the University of Chicago and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that free school meals are a meaningful way to reduce inflation for both families with and without school-aged children.

The study found that when a local school implemented community eligibility, homes with school-aged children purchased less food as a result of the free meals offered in schools. Those homes reduced their grocery spending by an average of 7.5 percent, which researchers called a community eligibility “demand shock”. Subsequently, that drop in grocery purchases led to stores cutting their prices across their locations. As a direct result of community eligibility, there was a median 4.5 percent reduction in grocery costs in the zip codes where the provision was implemented.  This reduction in grocery prices is a significant benefit for households with low incomes — with and without children. By effectively reducing grocery costs, community eligibility has demonstrated its potential as a tool to reduce food insecurity for entire communities and combat inflation.

Community Eligibility Helps Families

Another study ,“The Effect of Free School Meals on Household Food Purchases: Evidence from the Community Eligibility Provision,” conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt in Tennessee and the University of Louisville in Kentucky, found that community eligibility has a meaningful impact on grocery spending and food security for families.

One big takeaway is that, thanks to community eligibility, families with children can save between $11 to $39 per month – or $132 to $468 per year – on groceries.

As a result of these grocery savings, community eligibility may allow families to eat healthier at home. Researchers estimate that healthy diets cost $1.50 more per day than unhealthy diets. When families save money on groceries with community eligibility, they may be able to purchase healthier food, which can result in changes to the entire household’s dietary quality. This study found that households with low incomes food purchases are 3 percent healthier after community eligibility is available.

Further, households with children have a substantially higher rate of food insecurity (14.8 percent) than households without children (8.8 percent). This paper found that food insecurity among households with children declined by almost 5 percent once community eligibility became available to them.

These findings on the impact of community eligibility – lowered food costs, improved nutrition, reduced food insecurity – suggest that expanding access to school meals can benefit families, including those that already qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The authors found evidence that stigma and applications prevent eligible low-income families from participating in school meals prior to community eligibility.

The Value of Community Eligibility

Together, these papers demonstrate the value of community eligibility to fight inflation, reduce expenses, and improve food security. As the cost of living continues to increase, expanding access to healthy school meals is a critical way to help families and communities struggling to make ends meet.