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New tool available to combat child hunger in South Carolina

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COLUMBIA — A total of 657 high-poverty schools in South Carolina will be eligible to use a powerful new tool, known as community eligibility, to increase the number of children eating school meals and reduce paperwork by providing school meals to all students free of charge this upcoming school year.

The S.C. Department of Education made the announcement last week.

Community eligibility helps ensure that low-income children, whose families often are struggling to put food on the table, have access to healthy meals at school.

In the 11 states that offered the community eligibility provision as part of the initial roll-out, more than 4,000 high-poverty schools participated. This coming school year, the community eligibility option will be available to qualifying schools in every state.

Initial results show that community eligibility is leading to more children participating in school meals, and particularly increasing the number of children eating breakfast, an under-utilized program that many schools are seeking to expand. In addition to the negative impact that hunger has on overall growth and health, children who struggle with hunger also have to cope with its effects on their success at school, including: lack of concentration, slower recall, diminished academic performance, emotional and behavior difficulties and increased absence and tardiness.

“We have seen the success of community eligibility in reaching at-risk children in the states where it has already been implemented,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “Because of the high poverty rate across South Carolina, over 50 percent of our schools qualify for this program, providing significant support to the schools who will be able to participate this year. In South Carolina, 20.4 percent of households with children lack access to adequate food. Community eligibility will help ensure that we are reaching more of our children in need of nutritious breakfast and lunch, helping them to succeed in the classroom and improve their health and long-term well-being.”

In addition to helping reduce hunger for greater numbers of low-income students, community eligibility also helps schools and school districts streamline their operations and reduce paperwork. When more children eat, the per-meal cost of serving meals decreases. These economies of scale, combined with administrative simplifications, help to cover the cost of providing meals to students who might otherwise pay. And, less paperwork frees up resources to invest in improving meal quality and increases staff time available for other educational priorities.

Community eligibility is available to schools where 40 percent or more of the students are approved for free meals without an application because they have been identified as eligible by another program with a rigorous eligibility determination process, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp program). Since many additional students in these high-poverty schools are approved with an application, in the year prior to implementing community eligibility, 82 percent of children in participating schools in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan (the first three states to offer community eligibility) were approved for free or reduced price meals.

Eligible schools have until June 30 to decide whether they will participate in community eligibility.

“This is an exciting opportunity that schools in our state should seize,” Berkowitz said. “Adopting community eligibility can provide significant benefits not only to South Carolina’s high-poverty schools, but also to the many students they serve who might otherwise struggle to get enough food to eat each day.”

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