Bill would raise bureaucratic barriers to free lunch at low-income schools

Jun 7, 2016

For many children living in poverty, hunger is an everyday reality, and going to school hungry can have a big impact on a kid’s ability to learn.

That’s one of the reasons why the federal government offers free lunches to low-income students.

As part of the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, Congress made it possible for schools with a certain percentage of low-income students to offer free lunch to all of their students. It set up the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP.

A Republican-led bill currently making its way through the U.S. House would change the requirements of the CEP and make it harder for schools to qualify.

Supporters of HR 5003 -- The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act -- say it directs money to the neediest students. But opponents say it’s a step backward in the fight against childhood hunger.

Zoë Neuberger, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, joined Stateside to talk about CEP, the proposed changes to the program and what that could mean for school going forward.

"We should not have to make a tradeoff."

Neuberger told us that limiting the ability of the highest poverty schools to offer free breakfast and lunch in order to improve other programs, as she explains supporters of HR 5003 want to do, is a "false choice."

"We should not have to make a tradeoff," Neuberger said. "Children need to eat three meals a day year-round, and Congress doesn't have to make it harder to offer meals in one situation to offer them in another."

We also spoke with Mary Kurkowski, the Food and Nutrition Services Director at Port Huron Schools.

The district is in its fifth year of offering free meals through community eligibility.

According to Kurkowski, CEP has had a tremendously positive impact on her school district. Not only have the kids shown improved behavior and academic performance, she said, but the practice also eases the burden on families who might not be able to afford to adequately feed their children under normal circumstances.

Looking at the effects CEP has had on Port Huron Schools, Kurkowski says she "can't think of really any negatives."


Mary Kurkowski is the Food and Nutrition Services Director at Port Huron Schools
Zoë Neuberger is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

This segment was produced in collaboration with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. Support for State of Opportunity comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first.