The percentage of people in the U.S. living in poverty increased during the economic downturn that began in 2008, as did the percentage of people who struggle to put food on the table in their homes, according to the Food Research & Action Center’s report A Plan of Action to End Hunger in America released Oct. 7, 2015.
Yet despite the economic recovery, poverty and hunger continue to be issues nationwide and in Arizona.
Of the 46.7 million people in the U.S. who live in poverty, 21.1 percent are children, according to the United States Census Bureau report Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014 released Sept. 16, 2015.
While the percentage of Arizona families who struggle to afford food has declined from 19.1 percent in 2014 to 14.3 percent for the first half of 2015, many Arizona children still rely on school lunch and breakfast.
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Fifty-five percent of Arizona students qualified for free- or reduced-price breakfast and lunch during the 2014-15 school year, said Mary Szafranski, associate superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education’s Health & Nutrition Services.
Since 2013, the number of lunches served to Arizona schoolchildren has remained steady at over 106 million each year, and the number of breakfasts served is increasing, Szafranski said.
“We have seen an increase in total number of breakfasts served to students in Arizona,” Szafranski said. “Over 51 million breakfasts were served in school year 2014-2015 compared to 47 million in school year 2012-2013.”
The Food Research & Action Center’s report states that “while hunger in this rich nation is unacceptable, even in the worst of times, the recovery changes the dynamic, making American hunger both more unacceptable and more solvable.”
The report recommends eight strategies to end hunger in America. Strengthening child nutrition programs is one of them and school have become frontline players in these efforts.
Community eligibility program
One way schools are providing more of children’s essential meals is through the community eligibility program, said Etienne Melcher, senior child nutrition program coordinator at the Food Research & Action Center.
The community eligibility program was created through the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. It’s purpose is to make it easier for high-poverty schools to serve a greater number of healthy meals to students.
“Community eligibility is a win for both students and schools,” Melcher said. “First, it allows high-poverty schools to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students. It also provides significant administrative savings by eliminating the school meal application process and streamlines operations.”
The community eligibility program reimburses schools through a formula based on the number of low-income students eligible for free school meals without each student having to fill out an application form.
“Finally, it helps schools start up and maintain alternative breakfast models, like breakfast in the classroom, which increases school breakfast participation and allows students to start the school day ready to learn,” Melcher said.
Nationwide, about 6.4 million children received free breakfast and lunch through the community eligibility program during the 2014-15 school year at 13,819 schools in 2,218 districts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services.
Arizona currently has around 141 schools in 60 districts implementing the community eligibility program, Szafranski said.
“This is 21 percent of the total number of eligible schools,” Szafranski said. “There are 677 more schools that are eligible but haven’t taken the next step to implement it, so yes, many more schools could implement it but haven’t for various reasons.”
Community eligibility increases participation by children in the school meal programs, reduces labor costs for schools and increases federal revenue, Szafranski said.
“All students have access to free breakfast and lunch. It can lead to the development of healthier students and a healthier school meal budget,” Szafranski said.
Schools and districts should consider their current level of student participation in their school meal programs, then utilize the financial assessment tools on the Arizona Department of Education’s Special Assistance Provisions website to determine how the implementation of the community eligibility provision would affect their budget, Szafranski said.
“In the handful of states that piloted community eligibility before its national expansion, school lunch participation increased by 13 percent,” Melcher said. “Breakfast participation also increased in those states.”