New Tool for Combating Student Hunger

The Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program allows schools with high concentrations of poverty to feed their entire student body at no cost to the students. More than 28,000 schools serving over 44 percent of all students will be eligible for the program in 2014-2015, the first year it is available nationwide. 

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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, low food security households are ones that do not have access to enough food to support a healthy, active lifestyle for all members.1

  • In the 2011–12 school year, 49.6 percent of students nationwide were eligible for free or reduced price lunch.2
  • Only 32.5 percent of children in low food security households participated in free or reduced price lunch programs in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.
  • Research has shown a 10 percent increase in eligibility rate within a school leads to a 2.6 percent increase in participation among all students eligible for free or reduced lunch. The increase is higher—6.7 percent—among eligible high school students.3
  • Researchers believe the stigma of identifying as a recipient of free meals acts as a strong deterrent to accepting those meals, causing eligible students to go without food.3
  • Eating breakfast and lunch has been shown to improve both academic performance and classroom behavior.4
  • Evidence suggests a nutritional breakfast—containing three or more food groups—significantly increases academic performance.4
  • Students who eat breakfast at least four times per week have higher scores in English, science and math.4

The Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program allows schools or school districts that meet qualifying requirements to provide free meals to their entire student body.

  • To qualify, a school or district must have at least 40 percent of its students directly certified, meaning they receive benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are homeless, migrants or in foster care or Head Start.5
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility6 and free lunch eligibility are both capped at a household income of 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold. Reduced price lunch is capped at a household income of 185 percent of the poverty threshold.7
  • Using the federal reimbursement formula—the number of directly certified students multiplied by 1.6—a school or district with 62.5 percent of its student body directly certifiedwould be reimbursed by the federal government at the free rate for its entire student body.

The USDA has piloted the Community Eligibility Provision in several states since the 2011-12 school year, and will be making it available nationwide in 2014-2015. Students and schools in participating states are seeing benefits.

  • The original three pilot states—Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan—saw sharp increases in meal participation as a result of the program. Lunch participation grew by 13 percent in the three states, equating to an additional 23,000 students receiving meals. Breakfast participation grew by 25 percent, or 29,000 students.8
  • In the same states, participation in the  program grew from 865 schools in the first year to 1,240 schools in the second year as awareness spread.8
  • In the 2013-14 school year, the program was available in 10 states and the District of Columbia and provided meals to students in 4,000 schools.8
  • In the 2012-13 school year, school lunch participation was 5.2 percent higher in participating schools than in nonparticipating eligible schools.9
  • Participating schools have no application processing errors, whereas nonparticipating schools in 2012-13 had administrative errors in 6.6 percent of applications; those errors can prevent eligible students from being approved.9

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that more than 28,000 schools—more than 20 percent of schools nationwide—and more than 3,000 districts are eligible. Percentages of directly certified students show high concentrations of poverty in some schools.10

  • In 6,000 schools, 50-60 percent of students are directly certified. In 8,000 schools, more than 60 percent of students are directly certified. These 14,000 schools account for 10 percent of all schools nationwide.
  • In 700 school districts, 50-60 percent of students are directly certified; and in more than 800 districts, that number is more than 60 percent.
  • The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that for every 10 students who are directly certified, another six are eligible for free or reduced meals.
  • In participating schools in the original pilot states, 82.5 percent of students had qualified for free or reduced price lunch before the program was implemented.8
  • In 2011-12, 44 percent of students attended schools in which more than half the student body qualified for free or reduced price lunch.11


1 United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. “Household Food Security in the United States in 2012.” September 2013.
2 National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics. 2013 Tables and Figures
3 Mitcherva, D.& Powell, L. “Participation in the National School Lunch Program: Importance of School-level and Neighborhood Contextual Factors" Journal of School Health. 2009. 
4 Adolphus, Katie, Lawton, Claire and Drye, Louise. “The Effects of Breakfast on Behavior and Academic Performance in Children and Adolescents.” 
5 Community Eligibility Provision: Department of Education Title 1 Guidance. January 2014. 
6 U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 
7 U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services. Child Nutrition Programs; Income Eligibility Guidelines
8 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Community Eligibility: Making High Poverty Schools Hunger Free.” October 2013.
9 U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Community Eligibility Provision Evaluation.” February 2014. 
10 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “New Data Provide Sobering Look at Concentrated Poverty in Schools” June 2014. 
11 National Center for Education Statistics. “The Condition of Education” April 2014.