Changing the Way We Count Low-Income Students

Community Eligibility Chart
Chart showing some of the states enrolled in CEP

Currently over half of students in the U.S. received free or reduced-price lunch, a statistic that is widely used as a proxy for measuring child poverty rates. Now, however, a new strategy to fight hunger in schools might make it more difficult to collect data on the number of low-income students across the country. Community Eligibility is a program in which schools that already serve free or reduced lunch to a significant portion of students can make free lunch available to all—ensuring more kids eat, but also making student poverty data less accurate.

Though it goes without saying, hungry students will struggle to focus and learn in class if they're concerned about where their next meal is coming from. In this way, community eligibility is a powerful tool for combating student poverty. It reduces the stigma of having to get free or reduced lunch, and students can still get a solid meal at school even if their parents don't or can't fill out the eligibility paperwork disclosing their household income.

But even as it helps students, community eligibility could hurt them by masking or confusing data on student poverty and making it more difficult for advocates and policymakers to detail the extent of poverty's impact on students and schools. 

For the moment, how the data will be affected depends on how schools collect it and what other programs they might have in place. For instance, some schools might still require parents to fill out the old income disclosure paperwork to determine if students qualify for things like free uniforms or field trips. But the potential for this program to muddy the data on student poverty is worth monitoring and potentially addressing to ensure policymakers have an accurate picture of students' needs in our nation's schools.

The Hechinger Report has more about the community eligibility issue here.

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