Thousands of NYC children depend on their schools, not only for education, but for food, too.
That’s particularly true for the most vulnerable students: those who are homeless, receive food stamps, are in foster care or have been identified as high risk. They’re the ones who automatically qualify for free school meals.
Schools where 40 percent of students fit the highest-need category can participate in a program known as “community eligibility.” It allows schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to the student body, without a cumbersome application process for parents and school officials.
But the U.S. House of Representatives is threatening to make it harder for many students to get free meals. Its version of the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act, which recently cleared a procedural hurdle, changes the “community eligibility” threshold from 40 percent to 60 percent. That would mean the program would include only schools where 60 percent of students are high risk.
It’s important to note that the percentage of students who qualify for free school meals based on income is far higher than that more narrow high-risk range. So, a school where 40 percent of students meet the high-risk threshold likely has a far higher percentage of students who truly need the free meals. Yet, such schools would still be ineligible under the House’s new guidelines.
The change would affect thousands of schools and programs across the country, including nearly 400 statewide, the majority of which are in NYC. Without community eligibility, each family would have to apply. This would add another layer of bureaucracy when students’ needs should be the priority. There likely are families who don’t or can’t apply, because they don’t understand, decline to provide the personal information or feel ashamed. That would mean some students who need the meals won’t get them.
The House’s change would create a system of haves and have-nots and add the stigma of being singled out as in need. It would take the focus off teaching and learning, and put it on paperwork. It could mean the difference between having two meals and going hungry. The Senate’s version doesn’t include the change. It should prevail.