By Kristen Lothrop, Montana Food Bank Network
For many families across Montana, the start of the new school year comes as a relief. Back-to-school means back to school meals and the assurance that their children will have access to up to two nutritious meals every school day through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.
For families at approximately 90 Montana schools across nearly 40 districts, the process to participate in school meals just got easier. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), part of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, is an exciting new opportunity that allows schools in high need communities to offer nutritious meals to all students at no charge. It reduces the paperwork for parents and streamlines red tape for schools, allowing them to focus on what’s most important: teaching children. And because meals are free to all students in eligible schools, it eliminates the stigma sometimes associated with eating breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria.
Community eligibility has shown great success in the 11 states that are already offering it. In schools that offered community eligibility for two years, 13 percent more students ate lunch daily and the number of students eating breakfast — the most important meal of the day — increased 25 percent during in the same period.
We know that children need nutritious meals to grow, learn, and thrive, yet one in five children in Montana lives in a home that struggles to put food on the table, making them vulnerable to a host of health and developmental problems. Ensuring access to nutritious food is one of the most basic things we can do to help all of Montana’s children succeed in school. Community eligibility is a step in the right direction in the fight against hunger in Montana.
Schools still have until Aug. 31 to decide whether to participate in community eligibility this year, and we hope even more schools will opt in before then. A list of all schools eligible to participate in CEP for the 2014-2015 school year is posted on the MT Office of Public Instruction website – www.opi.mt.gov/Programs/SchoolPrograms/School_Nutrition. For more information on whether your local school is participating in CEP, contact the Montana Food Bank Network at 721-3825.
If your school is not eligible for or not participating in CEP this school year, families can still apply for free or reduced price meals using the paper application provided by the school or available for download from www.mfbn.org/gethelp.