About one-third of Georgia schools can now participate in the second year of a new federal program designed to help ensure children have food in their stomachs so they can concentrate on their studies.
Known as community eligibility it promises to increase the number of children eating school meals and reduce paperwork starting next fall, according to information published by the Department of Education. Community eligibility helps ensure that low-income children have access to healthy meals at school. Low-income families often struggle to put food on the table.
Community eligibility is a provision that offers significant federal reimbursements to high-poverty schools that offer breakfast and lunch to all students, rather than on an individual basis. Eligible Georgia schools must decide by the extended deadline of Aug. 31 to participate in the program.
Georgia schools began using community eligibility last fall, the start of the third year since the U.S. Department of Education started the program. Georgia is one of 11 states chosen to participate in the early stages of the program’s rollout. About 250,000 students at 436 high-poverty schools in Georgia received breakfast and lunch for free this year. Participation increases efficiency for schools and reduces hunger for students. This fall community eligibility is available to qualifying schools in every state.
Schools with 40 percent or more of students approved for free meals without an application are qualified for the program. Those students receive free meals without applying because they participate in some other program with a rigorous eligibility determination process, such as food stamps.
One in five Georgia households with children lack access to adequate food. Ensuring all children in high-poverty communities eat nutritious meals at school helps a student succeed in the classroom and improves their health and long-term well-being.
The program also helps schools and school districts streamline operations and reduce paperwork, because they are relieved of making case-by-case eligibility evaluations. When more children eat, the per-meal cost of serving meals decreases. These economies of scale, combined with administrative simplifications, help compensate for the cost of providing meals to students who might otherwise pay. Reduced paperwork frees up resources to invest in improving meal quality and increases staff time available for other educational priorities.
Community eligibility is making a huge difference for children in Georgia this school year. More Georgia schools should participate in the community eligibility program this second time around. It can improve operations at our high-poverty schools and also deliver meals for many students who otherwise struggle to get enough to eat each day.