Criticism mounts over proposal to restrict free-lunch program in schools

Public pushback is escalating over a less-publicized proposal in Congress that would make it harder for schools in high-poverty areas to offer free breakfast and lunch to all of their students.

congress capitol hill

The dust was stirred up by several op-eds this week criticizing a portion of the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, which was introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita, R–Ind., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.

Under fire is a proposal in the legislation to change the threshold by which schools qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. Currently, schools with 40 percent or more of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals can offer free food to all of their students. Rokita’s proposal would raise that threshold to 60 percent, “to better target resources to those students in need.”

New opinion pieces in The Washington Post, Slate.com and other national media outlets contend that while the recent legislation would save money by making fewer students eligible for free meals, it would increase the administrative burden for foodservice professionals at more than 7,000 schools and cause some low-income students from receiving meals they need.

The School Nutrition Association has expressed its opposition to such proposals. When the discussion draft of the bill was released in early April, SNA President Jean Ronnei stated, “We strongly oppose language to change the threshold for participating in the Community Eligibility Provision, a program which has greatly benefitted schools, students and families.” Ronnei and the SNA, however, praised other parts of the legislation that would reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Some 22 percent of school foodservice operators responding to FoodService Director’s 2016 K–12 Census noted that their districts qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision.

What percentage of your students qualify for free or reduced-price meals?

District Size (students)Average percentage off free/reduced-price students
Less than 2,00052%
2,000 to 4,99947%
5,000 to 9,99938%
10,000 to 69,99952%
70,000 or more58%

Are any of the schools in your district on the Community Eligibility Provision?

This provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allows schools with high poverty rates to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students.

22% Yes

71% No

8% Not familiar with CEP



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