Free-for-all food program increases student participation, raises Ky. breakfast count by 25% with only 39% of districts participating

Kentucky schools participating in a program that provides free breakfast and lunch to all students in high-poverty schools have significantly increased student participation in school lunch and breakfast programs, Charles Edwards reports for Education Week.

Schools participating in the “community eligibility option” have increased student participation by 13 percent in the lunch program and 25 percent in the breakfast program during the first two years of its availability and eliminated significant administrative costs, according to the Washington-based Food Research Action Center and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Collectively, Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan achieved a 25 percent increase in breakfast participation over the first two years, Education Week reports.

Of the 174 school districts in Kentucky, 68 participate in the community eligibility option, Nancy Rodriguez of the Kentucky Department of Education told Kentucky Health News. That is 39 percent of the public school districts. One private school also participates.

The program allows high-poverty schools to serve all students free breakfasts and lunches without individually identifying children as eligible. Schools get about the same amount of reimbursement from the Department of Agriculture that they did under the existing system—but without the paperwork. The reimbursement is based on the total number of meals served.

The school nutrition director at Ballard County, a participant in the “community eligibility option,” told Whitney Jones of WKMS-FM, Murray State’s NPR station, that the district saves $500 per year per student eating both breakfast and lunch at school.

The traditional way to determine eligibility for free or reduced breakfast and lunch required families to fill out a parent-income survey, which discouraged some from enrolling. The new eligibility option has been rolled out incrementally since it was authorized by Congress in 2010, and all eligible schools in the country may participate beginning in the 2014-15 school year.

Now, the percentage of a school’s children who are already enrolled in other federal need-based program or are homeless, migrant, in Head Start or in foster care, determines the eligibility of the school, reports Edward. If a school has an enrollment of at least 40 percent of such directly certified children, it is eligible. Some districts combine all their schools to include those that are below 40 percent.

Participation in the program has exceeded the original expectations, with more than 2,200 schools signed up in the first seven states allowed to participate. The original projection estimated 300 schools would participate over 10 years, Education Week reports.

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