Just over one-third of eligible schools in New Jersey are taking advantage of a free-meals eligibility option for students, compared to about half of all qualifying schools nationwide, according to a report released this week.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research & Action Center looked at the number of schools and districts that are using the Community Eligibility Provision option offered through federal child-nutrition programs. The provision allows certain high-poverty schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without requiring families to apply. It is intended to reduce paperwork and administrative burdens while ensuring more students receive nutritious meals. This is the second year the CEP option has been made available to all states.
In New Jersey, 35 percent of qualifying schools have adopted the option, compared to 51 percent nationwide, according to the report. Thirteen states had lower participation rates than New Jersey. The study also found that 28 percent of eligible school districts in New Jersey have adopted the option, compared to 37 percent nationwide. The state did beat the national curve in one area of the study: Sixty-seven percent of “highest-poverty schools” in New Jersey are using the option. That figure stands at 65 percent nationally.
According to Advocates for Children of New Jersey, districts have been hesitant about adopting the new option due to concerns they’ll lose state aid, which is partly based on school-meals applications. Districts can submit a household-income survey to the state education department instead, which only asks for information about students who aren’t automatically signed up to receive free meals at school through their enrollment in other programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.