Houston ISD to Provide Universal (Free) Meals at 166 Schools

I’m back from summer vacation in time to share some nice news:  Houston ISD, the seventh largest district in the country, has announced that it’s taking advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to provide universal (free) school breakfast and lunch to every student at 166 of its schools, regardless of economic status, and without the need for meal applications or other paperwork.  These schools represent approximately 55% of the total number of schools in our district, with an estimated combined population of over 100,000 students, and the free meals will become available when our school year begins a week from today.

The Community Eligibility Provision means school meals are free for all

The CEP was one of the less publicized gains of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), allowing schools to provide universal meals to an entire school based on “direct certification” data, such as how many children live in households receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits), without also requiring annual paper applications submitted by parents.  The CEP program has been rolled out gradually since 2011, starting in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan, then expanding to D.C., New York, Ohio, and West Virginia, and last year including Maryland, Massachusetts, Florida, and Georgia. The option is now open to all schools around the country, but they must apply by August 31st to implement the program this coming year.

The CEP is strongly supported by anti-hunger groups such as Project Bread and No Kid Hungry because it accomplishes several important goals, including reducing administrative burdens on parents and districts, targeting needy populations and increasing meal participation, especially at breakfast.  That in turn can lead to higher academic performance and improved classroom behavior, as children who aren’t distracted by hunger pains are clearly in a better position to learn.

The CEP also has the added benefit of reducing social stigma in the cafeteria, a very real problem that often prevents kids who qualify for free and reduced price lunch from actually eating those needed meals.  Some of you may remember my 2011 Lunch Tray post (“Social Media and Social Stigma on the Lunch Line“) in which I reported that students in HISD were taking cell phone pictures of kids standing in the federally reimbursed school meal line, then sharing these photos on social media with disparaging comments.  Not surprisingly, many students were willing to skip lunch rather than risk this kind of exposure.  But when meals are “free for all,” regardless of economic status, any stigma associated with eating a school meal is lessened or eliminated.*

Pursuing the CEP is not always an easy sell for food services departments, since other district administrators are long accustomed to relying on data from paper meal applications for the purposes of receiving funding under Title I and other programs.  But that data overlap isn’t an insurmountable problem (the USDA has issued a guidance document to help districts sort through the issue) and taking advantage of the CEP makes good sense in a district like ours, where over 80% of our children live close enough to the poverty line to qualify for school meal assistance.

So, kudos to HISD for making it happen.  And it will be interesting to see how many other districts around the country take advantage of the CEP this year, now that it’s open to all.  I’ll share that information here when it becomes available.


*Of course, as Matt Breunig recently noted in Salon, stigma in the lunchroom is likely to be even worse at schools where the number of poor kids is outweighed by the number of paying kids, and those schools would not qualify for the CEP.  For this reason and others, advocates like Janet Poppendieck and Alice Waters support universal free lunch at every school, which is the practice in many other countries around the world.  But as much as I, too, support this idea, I don’t believe it can gain widespread political traction in this country, at least for the foreseeable future.  So far, it’s been impossible to obtain adequate Congressional funding even for the current meal program, and I suspect that using taxpayer dollars to provide meals to those who could otherwise afford them would be abhorrent to many Americans, even those who aren’t inherently distrustful of sweeping government programs.

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