Belleville 118 and other Metro East districts join chorus of free school meals for all
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic, all students in Belleville District 118 and some other Metro East schools can get breakfast and lunch at school for free.
The districts are providing them through the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that allows eligible schools to give breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge, regardless of family income and without submitting an application.
“It’s been an awesome thing for our families,” said Belleville 118 Superintendent Ryan Boike.
To qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision, at least 40% of a school’s students must be certified as eligible for free school meals through participation in programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously known as the food stamps program.
For a school with an eligibility rate of between 40-62.5%, the federal government reimburses a percentage of meals served by the school at the free rate and the rest at the paid rate, meaning the school has to cover some of the costs for its participation.
But for a school more than 62.5% of its students eligible, the federal government reimburses all meals served by the school at the free rate, essentially covering all of the school’s costs.
“Once you reach that threshold, it basically becomes a win-win all around,” Belleville 118 Director of Food Services Steve Ebbesmeyer said.
He said that Belleville 118 had been inching toward the 62.5% threshold for years, but then last year it jumped up quite a bit.
“It’s been a surprise to us,” Ebbesmeyer said.
That jump made it financially viable for the entire district to participate. For each lunch the district serves now, District 118 gets reimbursed $4.35 from the federal government. For each breakfast, it gets $2.73.
This year, the Collinsville 10 also expanded its participation from four to all 12 schools.
Belleville 118 and Collinsville 10 are just two of many Metro East districts that have embraced the Community Eligibility Provision since it was first implemented in Illinois during the 2011-12 school year.
Healthy School Meals for All, a new program Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law on Aug. 11, could encourage even more districts to provide free meals to all students. Funding in the state budget still needs to be appropriated, however.
Which Metro East schools participate in CEP? Which are eligible?
Last school year, 18 public school districts and eight other public or private educational organizations in the Metro East took advantage ofthe Community Eligibility Provision, according to Illinois State Board of Education data.
In St. Clair County, the following districts participated: Marissa 40, Central 104, Cahokia 187, Brooklyn 188, East St. Louis 189, Dupo 196. JTC Academy (West and East), Menta Academy Belleville and the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education’s Safe School also participated.
In Madison County, the following districts participated: Roxana 1, Granite City 9, Collinsville 10 (Caseyville, Kreitner, Twin Echo and Webster elementary schools only), Alton 11, Madison 12, East Alton 13, East Alton-Wood River 14 and Wood River-Hartford 15. Coordinated Youth & Human Services, a Granite City-based non-profit, and the Madison County Regional Office of Education’s Center for Educational Opportunity also participated.
In Washington County, Irvington 14 and Ashley 15 participated.
In Randolph County, Coulterville 1, Chester 139, the Career Center of Southern Illinois and Perandoe Special Education District participated.
In Monroe County, only the Red Brick School, the Monroe-Randolph Regional Office of Education’s Safe School, participated.
No districts or organizations in Clinton or Bond counties participated.
According to the same data, 19 public school districts and six other public or private educational organizations had at least half of their schools eligible for Community Eligibility Provision, but did not participate.
Most of the 26 participating Metro East districts were above the 62.5% eligibility threshold that would lead to 100% federal reimbursement. Most of the 25 districts that were eligible but didn’t participate last school year were in the 40-62.5% eligibility range, meaning they would have had to foot the bill for some of the cost if they had participated.
Healthy schools meals for all
The new state program that Pritzker signed into law — Healthy School Meals for All — could entice those districts in the 40-62.5% eligibility range to join in the future.
The bill was proposed in February by Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, and the Illinois General Assembly passed the legislation May 17. It essentially replaces a federal pandemic-era waiver program allowing public schools to provide free meals to all students that expired in June 2022.
In passing the bill, Illinois has joined eight other states that have already enacted permanent universal school meal programs. More than 20 other states are at various stages in passing similar legislation.
Janna Simon, director of the center for policy and partnership initiatives at the Illinois Public Health Institute, said the bill provides a legal framework for Healthy School Meals for All in Illinois, but that the state still needs to appropriate funding in its budget for the program to be implemented.
Without that appropriation in the state budget, “it’s business as usual,” she said.
The Illinois legislature could appropriate the funding during its fall veto session, which would make the program available for the remainder of the school year, according to Simon. If not, the program wouldn’t be funded until the budgeting process for fiscal year 2025 takes place next spring, making the program unavailable until next school year.
Non-profit schools — public or private — and welfare centers can opt-in to participate in the program.
Participating schools must leverage as much federal funding as possible through the National School Breakfast and Lunch programs and the Community Eligibility Provision, if they are eligible.
Then, after all federal funding is taken into account, the state will reimburse schools for the remaining costs of implementing Healthy School Meals for All according to a formula outlined in the bill.
One of the advantages of Healthy School Meals for All, Simon said, is that schools with 40-62.5% student eligibility rate will have the remaining gap reimbursed by the state.
Schools that are not eligible can still opt-in to Healthy Schools Meal for All, and they still have to leverage as much federal funding as possible through non-provision avenues. The state will then reimburse for the difference.
What are the benefits of universal school meal programs?
Debate and research on providing meals to all students at school has endured for decades.
Studies have shown that providing universal free meals to students, including through the Community Eligibility Provision, leads primarily to higher school meal participation with some evidence pointing to improvements in food security, weight, school attendance, test scores and reductions in disciplinary action.
Ebbesmeyer, the director of food services at Belleville 118, said he has already noticed an increase in meal participation at the district’s schools.
Universal school meals programs also lessen the administrative burden on schools since they don’t have to collect applications for free or reduced-price meals from students, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Simon of the Illinois Public Health Institute said universal school meals programs like the Community Eligibility Provision and Healthy School Meals for All also reduce the stigma that comes with qualifying for free or reduced-price school meals and alleviate the stress of school meal debt on districts and families.
Illinois has about $15 million annually in school meal debt, she said.
Boike said Belleville District 118 had about $15,000 in school meal debt at the end of the last school year.
Kelly Smits is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.