Guest post by Alison Maurice

Find out if your school district is eligible to provide free meals to your students with this handy FAQ guide to the community eligibility provision.


Why should I consider community eligibility for my school?

Educators know that in order for children to learn, they must be well nourished. Schools are an important access point for healthy meals for low-income children. That is why community eligibility continues to grow in popularity among high-need schools. Community eligibility has been successful at increasing school breakfast and lunch participation, so more students experience the positive educational outcomes that are linked to participating in school meals. In the current school year, nearly 10 million children in over 20,000 schools and 3,500 school districts are being offered breakfast and lunch at no charge through the community eligibility program.

What are the benefits of community eligibility?

Schools participating in community eligibility benefit from:

  • Less administrative work—school administrators no longer need to collect and verify school meal applications and can focus more resources on providing nutritious meals for students.
  • Increased participation in the school breakfast and lunch programs—in initial pilot states, community eligibility increased breakfast participation by 9.4 percent and increased lunch participation by 5.2 percent.
  • Improved financial viability of school nutrition programs—when community eligibility becomes available at a school, school meal participation increases, which can improve school nutrition finances.
  • The elimination of unpaid meal fees—this means schools no longer need to collect money from families or find available funds for the meals that go unpaid by students.

Additionally, by offering meals at no charge to all students, community eligibility makes it easier for schools to leverage innovative school breakfast service models, such as breakfast in the classroom, “grab and go” breakfast, and second chance breakfast. Traditional school breakfast programs that operate before the school day begins must compete with hectic morning schedules and late bus arrivals. Rather, breakfast after the bell service models integrate breakfast into the school day, allowing more children to start the day ready to learn.

How does community eligibility work?

Community eligibility allows high-need school districts and schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students, while eliminating the school meal application process. Any school district, group of schools in a district, or individual school with 40 percent or more “identified students”—children who are certified for free meals without submitting a school meal application—can choose to participate in community eligibility. Identified students include:

  • Children who live in households that receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps); Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR); and in some states, Medicaid.
  • Children who are homeless, migrant, enrolled in Head Start, or in foster care.

How will my schools get reimbursed?

Once a school, group of schools, or school district establishes its identified student percentage (ISP), that number is multiplied by 1.6 to determine the percentage of meals reimbursed at the free reimbursement rate (capped at 100 percent). The remainder is reimbursed at the paid rate. This percentage is locked in for four years, unless the ISP goes up, in which case it would be adjusted to reflect the increase. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a “Community Eligibility Provision Estimator” tool to help school districts determine if community eligibility makes financial sense. There is a lot of flexibility in how schools are grouped to determine the ISP, allowing districts to group schools to ensure financial viability.

What can I do right now?

Start planning for the 2017–18 school year today. Find out which school districts and schools in your state have implemented community eligibility or were eligible during the 2016–17 school year using FRAC’s Community Eligibility Database.

By adopting community eligibility, you can increase participation in school breakfast and lunch, ensuring your students the nutrition needed to succeed in school.

Is there a deadline for my school to apply for community eligibility?

On May 1, 2017, your state’s education agencies will publish a list of schools and school districts that qualify for community eligibility. Review the list to see which of your schools qualify for the 2017–18 school year.

The deadline to apply to use community eligibility in the 2017–18 school year is June 30, 2017.

For more information on community eligibility, reach out to Alison Maurice, child nutrition policy analyst at the Food Research & Action Center and check out these resources:

Alison Maurice is a child nutrition policy analyst at the Food Research & Action Center.

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