Part II: Child Hunger in Arkansas and Community Eligibility

Note: This is part II of a three-part blog series on food insecurity and child hunger in Arkansas. Read part I here

A hungry child is often not able to put forth the energy and attention required to function well in school. Many Arkansas schools are now adopting a program that streamlines free and reduced lunch programs and helps feed more kids. It’s called the Community Eligibility Program, or CEP. With some simple changes, we can make sure that all kids in Arkansas have enough to eat, and those changes can even save us money.

The Community Eligibility Program (CEP) is a shortcut to ensuring no kids have to go to school hungry. High-poverty schools can elect to serve free breakfast and lunch to everyone instead of collecting school meal subsidy applications for each eligible child individually. This option reduces stigma and administrative costs, increases attendance and academic performance and generally helps encourage a healthier student body. CEP also turns out to be very cost effective. Providing meals to the entire student body instead of asking for forms reduces paperwork and administrative costs, and CEP students don’t have to swipe a card or wait in line to pay.

So what is stopping Arkansas schools from taking advantage of this option? Until recently, many of our school districts were wary of CEP because of uncertainty over how it would affect other funding sources. Some federal funds are based on data collected while determining which students are eligible for free meals under the traditional model. For the 2014-2015 school year, only four schools in Arkansas took advantage of CEP. In 2015, the statute language was tweaked, giving school districts the confidence that their funding would not be negatively impacted. This confidence resulted in CEP participation increasing to 70 schools for the 2015-2016 school year and 138 schools for the 2016-2017 school year.

The increased participation in CEP is a huge step forward. More kids are alert in class, and fewer kids are distracted from learning because they are hungry. It is time to expand this program to all eligible schools. Only 29 percent of eligible schools are participating, and there are still 331 schools in Arkansas that are eligible to participate but have not taken advantage of this program. All children at these eligible schools can and should go through their school day more concerned about what they are learning than where they will get their next meal.

Miss the first post in this series? No problem. Read part I of this three-part series on child hunger in Arkansas here.