Support the Health of the Families through the Community Eligibility Provision

School lunchSeveral months ago, I met a family in the Pediatric Emergency Department at Boston Medical Center with three children: one preschooler and two school-aged children. While my questions to the parents of these children were focused on the health of their youngest child, they could not help but tell me about their other two children. They beamed with pride as they talked about each of their children, but never stopped worrying about how to stretch their family’s budget, even with two incomes, to provide enough nutritious food for three hungry, rapidly growing bodies and minds.

Children need healthful food to learn, grow, and thrive. The pediatricians I work with at Children’s HealthWatch often compare food assistance to a vaccine – it keeps children healthy, decreases their risk for developmental delays, and benefits whole communities by ensuring that children are focused in school because they have the nutrition necessary for learning.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is an effective vaccine for schools to provide in high-poverty areas, as it offers meals at no charge to all students. By eliminating the administrative burdens of screening and verifying large numbers of individual applications, this provision decreases administrative costs and increases participation in school meal programs, effective programs for improving attendance and cognitive performance as well as diet quality and access to food for children in food-insecure households.

While Children’s HealthWatch research focuses specifically on the first four years of life, we know that children live within the context of families and providing nutritional support to any family member benefits all family members. The family I met at Boston Medical Center benefits from adoption of the CEP by Boston Public Schools;  knowing two of their children are well-fed at school, the family can focus their food budget on purchasing healthful food for dinner and meals when school is not in session and thereby reduce their overall economic hardship.

Last year, Children’s HealthWatch published a policy statement and blog in support of CEP; this year we hope that even more school districts will opt in. Of the five cities where Children’s HealthWatch collects data, the school districts in three of those cities opted to participate, Boston, Philadelphia, and most recently, Baltimore. In each of these cities, and in other participating districts across the nation, all children in city schools were nourished and parents were able to go to work or school safe in that knowledge.

The success of CEP can be readily seen in school districts across the United States. This year, the program rolls out nationally and hundreds of eligible school districts are encouraged to adopt this provision. All children deserve seamless, stigma-free nutrition support necessary to learn and reach their highest potential. The CEP is a cost-effective way to ensure they receive it.