Ever wonder about requirements for school food programs? Part 2

Two major changes have updated school food program requirements, in nutrition and community access.

Photo credit: National School Lunch Program
Photo credit: National School Lunch Program

School meals are a focal point for healthy food access. As discussed in part one of this series, the new nutrition standards for school meals have increased the requirements for nutrient dense, low fat and high fiber foods. This article will outline changes that have been made to increase access to school meals for students whose families qualify as low-income.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is one arm of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010. This goal of this provision is to make it easier to offer breakfast and lunch to all students in low-income communities. Typically, food service staff are responsible for gathering applications from individual families for their students to be approved for free or reduced meals. The CEP allows income levels to be cross referenced with other state approved programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). When the community level of eligibility for these programs exceeds the required percentage, the school can automatically be approved for free or reduced lunches, for the entire school. 

In Michigan, we have 65 percent of all students qualifying for free lunch and seven percent qualifying for reduced lunches. For the CEP, that translates to 822 individual schools are eligible to participate. So far, 620 of these schools have adopted it. Based on implementing this program, these schools are serving meals to 265,000 students per day. 

This program provides a number of advantages to schools. As mentioned above, the school food staff is no longer responsible for collecting applications for free or reduced lunch, which frees up staff time. If a school is able to implement meals for the entire student population, there is also the possibility that the staff member who usually acts as the cashier in the lunch line can be freed up for other duties. Since all students are able to participate in the lunch or breakfast program, it can also decrease the stigma of qualifying for a lower rate meal, since there is no need for the student to identify themselves as receiving a subsidized meal. Schools not participating in CEP have taken other measures to reduce stigma and identification with free or reduced meals, but this program certainly puts everyone on an even playing field. 

One result of being able to implement breakfast for all students is that more schools are serving breakfast in the classroom. This increases participation in the breakfast program, and assists students with getting a solid meal at the beginning of the day. Program participation has increased by four million students over the last four years, from ten million in 2011 to 14 million today. Generally, schools have reported an increase in the meal programs once adopting the CEP. Anecdotally, Undersecretary Concannon shared that school nurses have reported less stomachs, headaches, restlessness, tardiness and absenteeism. They connect this with students having access to regular, healthy meals. 

Michigan State University Extension supports healthy meals for all of Michigan’s children during the entire year. For more information about school food programs read part one of this article.

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