Republican Proposal Would Restrict Free Meal Programs At Thousands Of America’s Poorest Schools

by ALAN PYKE –

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Millions of low-income American students could lose access to free school meals under a proposal circulating among House lawmakers.

The measure would reverse years of progress on free meals in U.S. schools by setting a much higher eligibility bar for schools to start making meals free to all students. Thousands of schools have expanded their meal offerings in recent years as researchers expose the extent of child hunger — and the dividends that come from curing it inside schoolhouses.

The changes would take away schoolwide free meals programs from more than 7,000 schools that educate almost 3.4 million students in low-income areas, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. Another 11,600 schools that have not yet taken advantage of the free meals option for all students would lose access to it under the proposal. Instead of using what’s called Community Eligibility, these schools would have to reinstate individual applications and verification procedures for huge numbers of students.

The draft bill circulating in the House Education and Workforce Committee lists no author. But sources told ThinkProgress that the push to make free meals harder is coming from a specific handful of Republican congressmen on the subcommittee in charge of pre-school, primary, and secondary education issues.

The list includes Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI), who has a track record of wildeyed claims about anti-poverty programs, and Subcommittee Chair Todd Rokita (R-IN), who famously cross-examined a woman who raises her children on a $10.88 hourly wage at a 2014 hearing. Neither congressman’s office immediately returned requests for comment on the school food restrictions.

Meanwhile, the list of schools that would be affected is making some Republicans realize that the idea would have an impact in their own districts. The draft legislation has yet to be formally introduced, making it relatively easy for lawmakers to walk away from the proposed restrictions on school meals without anyone having to cast a committee vote against a colleague’s pet project.

The community eligibility system should be a winner even for fiscal conservatives. Determining free meals eligibility on a schoolwide basis rather than kid by kid lets under-funded districts “shift resources from paperwork to higher-quality meals or other educational priorities,” the CBPP report notes.

The proposal would change the definition of how poor a school district has to be before it can skip the paperwork and feed all of its students. Currently a school qualifies for community eligibility if 40 percent of its students are automatically qualified for free school meals based on their participation in another anti-poverty program. The GOP draft measure would raise that threshold to 60 percent.

Those threshold percentages are not hard-and-fast stand-ins for what share of a student body is poor enough to qualify for free meals. Automatically-qualified students are only a sub-set of the need population here, the CBPP emphasizes. Hunger experts’ rule of thumb holds that for every two students auto-enrolled in free meal programs, there’s another classmate who would qualify if she applied. As the CBPP puts it, “Schools in which 40 percent to 60 percent of students are identified as automatically eligible for free meals typically have 64 percent to 96 percent of their students approved for free or reduced-price meals.”

This GOP proposal would therefore hit schools where roughly 19 out of every 20 students likely qualifies for free meals. Yanking away cost- and time-saving schoolwide eligibility from such districts would not only chomp into their meager budgets. It would create hungry kids where there don’t need to be any.

Hungry students are distracted students. Kids growing up in high-poverty communities, even those with relative financial stability at home, have to deal with cognitive fallout that wealthier communities don’t see. And six in 10 teachers say they see hungry kids in their classrooms every single week.

Student achievement dips when kids don’t get enough nutritious food, and disciplinary issues are more likely. Hunger in schools is therefore linked to huge costs down the road, in increased need for health care, higher incarceration rates, and higher chances that poor kids become poor adults.

 

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress